Friday, January 13, 2023

First Vulcan Centaur Built and en Route to Florida

The first United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur has been loaded into the company's barge "RocketShip" (pictured here) and is en route to Cape Canaveral SFS.  

Short video here

The first two Blue Origin BE-4 engines to complete the first Vulcan booster stage were shipped on Halloween Monday, and the assembly has been in process in Decatur Alabama since the engines arrived.  Today's departure marks the start of a 2000 mile trip on rivers, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean before arriving at Port Canaveral.  The trip from this dock to the dock at CCSFS takes around a week.  

While the Vulcan was announced in 2015, it was in development since some time in 2014, driven by Russia's first invasion into the Ukraine in which they took Crimea.  That invasion prompted the sanctions that said US companies could no longer purchase the Russian RD-180 engines.  These are the engines ULA uses in their Atlas V launch vehicle and they were allowed to take a contract before a termination date for orders in that year.  All of the remaining Atlas Vs will use the remaining RD-180s they bought back then and the Vulcan Centaur will replace the Atlas V. 

ULA announced that it would work with Blue Origin to integrate the startup’s BE-4 engine into a new rocket booster to end its reliance on Russian engines.  More than eight years later, and more than five years after they were originally promised, the engines appear ready to go with the rest of the rocket behind it.  

It has been said that Vulcan Centaur will ultimately fully replace ULA’s existing Delta IV as well as the Atlas V rockets.  That seems like it would lead to smoother, more efficient operations at ULA, and perhaps allow them to compete more on prices against SpaceX.  

The Vulcan Centaur blog says:

Vulcan combines the best of today's Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy rockets with the latest technology advancements to produce a single launch system that provides higher performance and greater affordability while continuing to deliver ULA's unmatched reliability and precision.

Offering unprecedented flexibility, the single-core Vulcan can deliver payloads from low Earth orbit to Pluto and beyond while making access to space more cost-effective. Vulcan also meets the challenging requirements now demanded by an expanding spectrum of missions that are essential to the nation's defense.

Vulcan leverages existing infrastructure, including manufacturing and assembly at our sophisticated production facility in Decatur. ULA has invested heavily in the factory with new automated tooling solutions, welding equipment upgrades, robotic assembly lines for fabrication, and other upgrades for maximum efficiency.

The new rocket can be built in less than half the time as its predecessors and launched at a much higher tempo. More than 70 Vulcan launches are currently on the manifest, including 38 launches to deploy a majority of Amazon's Project Kuiper to provide fast, affordable broadband to unserved and underserved communities around the world; approximately 20 to 30 missions as the U.S. Space Force's No. 1 offeror in the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 procurement; and the orbital delivery of Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser reusable spaceplane on cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station.

This inaugural mission, known as Certification-1, will deliver two Kuiper prototype broadband satellites into low Earth orbit, send the Astrobotic Peregrine commercial lunar lander to reach the Moon, and carry a Celestis Memorial Spaceflight Payload into deep space.

They don't mention a NET (No Earlier Than) launch date, although NextSpaceflight declares it to be NET February 25.  That linked page is all ULA launches and it seems far too optimistic;  it has 15 Vulcan Centaur launches before the end of the year, and I've seen no indications they have the hardware to build that many.  FWIW, I think this first launch won't be until mid-March at the earliest and they'll be lucky to get four Vulcan launches this year.

Can't tell them apart without a scorecard? This should help.


  1. Pity the Dream Chaser won't fit into a standard Falcon fairing, and IIRC SpaceX has no plans to make a larger diameter one. That may change, but it's doubtful.

  2. Will be nice if those BE4s actually work. Seriously don't trust Blue Origin at all. Guess we'll have to see.

    For ULA and the world's sake, I hope they work.

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