ULA’s Bruno: Vulcan Centaur design on track for 2021 first flight

Second certification flight delayed by covid-19 precautions

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted many aerospace companies to shift production schedules and delay bringing new products to market, but United Launch Alliance doesn’t plan to be among them.

The Colorado-based launch company is “very confident” that its Vulcan Centaur rocket will still make its debut in 2021, ULA president and CEO Tory Bruno said during a Thursday call with reporters.

First announced in 2015, the Vulcan Centaur design consists of a single-core booster to which up to six solid rocket boosters would be attached for additional thrust, depending on the mass of the payload and desired orbital altitude. With this range of configurations, ULA plans for Vulcan to eventually replace the single-core Atlas V and three-core Delta IV Heavy rockets the company currently flies, primarily for launching billion-dollar spy and military satellites for the U.S. government.

The U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, which manages launch contracts, plans to divide those launches between ULA and rival SpaceX under Phase 2 of the National Security Space Launch program, provided ULA proves the design’s performance by conducting two certification launches for other customers.

The first of these certification launches will be the Vulcan design’s inaugural flight when a Vulcan lifts off with Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander.

“It is now our expectation that Peregrine will go to space in the fourth quarter of ’21,” between October and December, Bruno said, and likely “closer to the end of the year.”

Leading up to that launch, ULA will conduct a series of tests at Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The current schedule calls for shipping the booster tank for the first Vulcan flight to Florida “very early in the year,” Bruno said, after which it would be joined with two pathfinders, or test versions, of the Blue Origin-built BE-4 engines that will power Vulcan’s first stage. One of the final tests ULA engineers will complete is a wet dress rehearsal, in which the booster’s propellant tanks are filled with liquefied natural gas fuel and liquid oxygen oxidizer as if in preparation for a launch, but the booster engines would not be fired.

“We may choose to do that [test] more than once,” depending on Vulcan’s performance, Bruno said. He estimated that testing with the flight version of the booster and the BE-4 pathfinder engines would last “pretty much all spring and into the summer,” after which ULA would swap out the pathfinder BE-4s for the actual flight engines in preparation for the Astrobotic launch.

If the first launch goes as planned, Vulcan’s second certification flight would occur between January and March 2022, when ULA will launch a Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser spaceplane on its first cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. That launch was originally scheduled for 2021, but covid-19 restrictions limiting the number of workers on site “have conspired to move the date a little bit,” Steve Lindsey, a senior vice president at SNC’s Space Systems division, told reporters during a November briefing.

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Rocket Propulsion
Two large rocket engines covered with red Blue Origin branded covers are positioned side by side in an industrial workshop setting.
The two BE-4 pathfinder engines in ULA's Decatur factory, which next year will be shipped to Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida for testing. Credit: Tory Bruno, ULA, via Twitter

ULA’s Bruno: Vulcan Centaur design on track for 2021 first flight