Wednesday, April 3, 2024

ULA Vulcan's Cert-2 Flight Looks to be Slipping

While Vulcan's Cert-1 flight back in January went successfully, checking off lots of accomplishment boxes, the plan we've known United Launch Alliance wanted to follow was two certification flights and hoping to have their certification from the US Space Force to launch National Security payloads granted by the end of 2024. 

The payload for the Cert-2 flight has long been said to be Sierra Space's Dream Chaser spacecraft - the one that looks like a miniature Space Shuttle. The only problem is that it's increasingly looking like the payload won't be ready for the mission ULA is planning. While a real date isn't announced, we know they've been targeting June - the early talk after January's Cert-1 flight was "April-ish." Ars Technica reports that it's looking to be slipping out, probably into the fall, which makes having everything completed for certification by the end of the year less likely. Delaying input to the process by three months seems likely to delay the output by that much, too.

As usual, this is a complex story with lots of places where conflict can arise. Dream Chaser is scheduled to deliver cargo to the Space Station (ISS) in an unmanned, autonomous flight like the other vehicles. NASA's internal scheduling had the craft penciled in for September, but that can be moved by NASA as desired based on other concerns. 

In fact, there is skepticism within the space agency about a fall launch. According to one source, during a recent meeting to integrate planning for space station activities, there were significant inconsistencies in the schedule that Sierra Space officials laid out for NASA.

At all times, the ISS team has to coordinate arriving crew and cargo vehicles from SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and Russia as well as the Dream Chaser cargo mission. They're expected to operate in the best interest of the ISS at all times, and if the station needs something that one's carrying which is different from the previous plans, they change the order of flights. 

While ULA has always stressed the first two missions are their cert flights, it is possible to certify with one flight, and conversely, with more than two flights.

Previously, Col. Douglas Pentecost of the Space Force said United Launch Alliance had chosen the Vulcan certification path requiring the least amount of launches: two. By contrast, Blue Origin has agreed to a three-flight certification process, which requires less paperwork. There is also a six-flight option and even a 14-flight option for certification. The latter option essentially means that if your rocket flies 14 times, it earns certification.

Nevertheless, there is a precedent for a single-flight certification. In 2018, the Air Force agreed to certify SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket after its debut launch in February of that year. That decision was controversial enough that it generated a review by the Department of Defense Inspector General, which found that the military had "generally complied" with its procurement rules.

It's worth noting that Falcon Heavy didn't launch a military payload on its next two flights. Which makes it appear that the initial certification was conditional on the success of the next two commercial missions and it was really a three flight certification. 

Yet another wild card that might be on the table is to launch Cert-2 carrying a different payload than Dream Chaser. 

Two sources said United Launch Alliance had asked Space Systems Command, the Los Angeles-based unit responsible for military access to space, for at least a partial certification of Vulcan based on data from its initial launch. This would potentially allow Vulcan to carry national security payloads on its second flight or perhaps Defense Innovation Unit payloads such as Blue Origin's DarkSky-1 mission.

Vulcan Centaur's Cert-1 flight lifts off on January 8, 2024 from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Image credit: United Launch Alliance.

I think the only thing I conclude out of this is "Stay Tuned."


  1. Seems time related to space (rockets and travel) is a slippery thing. Even SpaceX has had slippery deadlines.


    Was not expecting this from Sierra N. They've been pushing and pushing and now they're slowing down? Wonder what's wrong. Maybe valves, since valves seem to be the go-to for space vehicle issues.

    1. The Ars article had nothing on what the problems are. The last stuff I saw about their testing was that they were doing shake and bake stuff including in a vacuum chamber, by which time I figure the design is pretty mature, and it's usually workmanship stuff they're looking for. Which doesn't exclude things like thermal expansion or contraction pulling things apart or otherwise ruining things. You find out something is too long and needs more supports to keep from shaking apart - stuff like that.

    2. Yeah, it sounds like they may need more redesign/rebuild due to testing - which can be considered "normal". Hey, that's why these things are tested as much as possible before flight. Wouldn't want something tearing loose or failing in some other way during the first few launches, would we?

      Who do they think they are, SpaceX??

  2. I find it interesting that so many of the reusable space vehicles have a form that looks like an updated version of the Dyna-Soar. Apparently it was a good design after all.

    1. Take DynoS next level, say like those 60's experimental fission/(fusion?) engines in a re-attachable "stage" form factor, run on liquid hydrogen, gets reused and refueled, left it in orbit, this way avoiding the bad radiation in atmosphere components problem? After all they seem to be the best thrust ratio to fuel milage to date. Lot of upgrades in materials since they ran that program.
      Russians claim they have that atmosphere breathing nuclear cruise missile with unlimited milage. Would think a vacuum only engine frees up all sorts of performance improvements. Course you got to bring fuel for it up out of this gravity well, until somebody goes out and moves a ice asteroid or comet using a Holman orbit into earth-moon orbit. We got to get off this rock at some point, just all the resources out there waiting for us, one iron asteroid alone could more than pay for setting up and running the first mining operation. With unlimited sunshine you basically got a ready free energy smelter using a mirror heated furnace. True vacuum melt alloys, commercially feasible finite materials separation for pure materials production, alloys not possible in gravity, unique new grain structures, and who knows what all is mixed in some of those nickel iron asteroids and comets that have rocky cores? Be nice if comets contained say high levels of deuterium, neon, helium family, tritium etc. That could seriously boost feasibility. So much potential. Strikes me as more cost effective verses mining the moon for resources. Takes longer due to distances, long term pay off could be far higher.Say if SpaceX can get to mars, its not much further to the fringes of the asteroid belt, pretty much a change in orbital mechanics to reach it.
      Maybe I'm just a dreamer, I grew up during the space race, the sky truly was the limit, and something truly acted to stop it all from happening. Undermined the incredible can do/ain't gonna fail because of me mind set/inertia of it all.
      Could it be why SoaceX is being run partially outside the perveiw of TPTB? Often wonder about that, or a splinter group is set on attaining space access thats commercially viable? Who or what could it be? Because something is insulating SpaceX from the beast that kills all free unfettered enterprise. Highly unusual today.

    2. There's not much here I know enough about to comment on, but I would point out one little thing.

      "one iron asteroid alone could more than pay for setting up and running the first mining operation." AFAIK, it will probably be true that picking a nickel-iron asteroid and processing it in space will be cheaper than lifting already-made steel on a rocket, but remember that "Supply and demand" is as close as any law not taught in a science or engineering class ever gets to the hardness, the kind of inviolability, of physical law.

      Someone I read in the last few years hypothesized finding a gold asteroid and bringing it to Earth. It resulted in collapsing the market price of gold.

      We have so much iron on Earth that I've been to field (in the UP of Michigan) that was lumps of already mined Hematite, one of the richest iron ores there is, but it cost more to plow up that hillside and transport it to an iron processing plant than the refined iron would be worth. Disclaimer: that was 20 years ago, so maybe someone has plowed it all up by now. The land up there is extremely rich in iron ore.

    3. Space mining is a wicked pissa of a subject. Best used for... manufacturing in space, of course. Sci-Fi author John Ringo postulates using mirrors to concentrate solar light onto asteroids to smelt and build things in space.

      Water mining will be a space thing. Either capturing ice asteroids and boosting them to a useful place or something like that. It would be a great way to add water and atmosphere to Mars for terraforming. Repeatedly drop ice asteroids onto Mars would toss up lots of water vapor and dust which would help warm and build up the atmosphere.

    4. i think if we did not have satanic global domination psychopaths in control of the planets financial, media, military and intelligence, we could have natural price discovery, which would make every sort of economic endeavor, planet based or space based, find it's own natural feasibilty and it would happen thru true real market demands, innovation invention and just good ol elbow grease.
      Until those psycho's are gone yeah i basically agree with you Graybeard what your saying about the excellent iron deposits.
      lord knows those crazies in control simply got to go. everything they touch turns to feces. everything.