On Monday, the Centaur upper stage for the first flight of United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rocket arrived at Cape Canaveral for integration.
During a media roundtable on Wednesday afternoon, the chief executive of United Launch Alliance, Tory Bruno, said, “The path to flight one is clear" for Vulcan. The last major piece of hardware for the rocket, the Centaur V upper stage, arrived at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Monday. All of the qualification testing necessary for the first flight, including for the upper stage, is complete.
In the coming days, Bruno said the Centaur upper stage would be integrated with the Vulcan first stage. Then, the combined vehicle will be rolled to the launch site for a fueling test known as a wet dress rehearsal in December. However, the rocket's main engines, BE-4s provided by Blue Origin, will not be fired. That's because the first stage already completed this hot fire test successfully in June.
Bruno said ULA still had some margin in its schedule leading up to the December 24th launch of the flight they're calling Certification-1. The launch time is set by the Earth/Moon geometry as No Earlier Than 1:49 am ET on Sunday the 24th. For half of the country's lower 48 that's still Saturday night, December 23rd. Bruno went on to say that if the weather is poor, the company also has launch opportunities on December 25 and 26 before the closure of the launch window this year. The window reopens at the same lunar phases in January for another three days.
The first stage for flight Certification-1 sits on pad 41 on Cape Canaveral SFS. Image credit: ULA
Those of you who have been keeping up with the progress of the Vulcan are familiar with the details that Vulcan has been in development for over a decade and was supposed to have flown by 2020. A large factor in the delay to this point has been the development and delivery of the Blue Origin BE-4 engines. Going to those engines was primarily because congress mandated that US launch companies were no longer allowed to buy Russian engines.
The latest delay was caused by the Centaur V upper stage itself when it exploded during a test at the end of March.
As the delays have mounted, ULA has faced increasing pressure from the US Space Force to begin flying Vulcan, as it is slated to fly about two dozen national security missions in the next five years. Before it can do that, however, Vulcan must complete two certification flights and provide data to the military. The first of these is the Astrobotic flight, and the second mission will launch Sierra Space's Dream Chaser spacecraft. During Wednesday's teleconference, Bruno declined to set a specific target for that flight, mentioning only that it probably will take place during the first half of next year.
Bruno did mention that ULA has booked 70 Vulcan launches, about half military missions and half commercial flights. The primary customer for the commercial launches is Amazon, which is eager to begin putting its Project Kuiper broadband Internet satellites into low-Earth orbit. To even approach that amount of launches, ULA is focusing on achieving two launches per month by the end of 2025. This is far more than either half of the ULA alliance, Lockheed Martin or Boeing, has ever launched in their histories.