CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.—United Launch Alliance’s first Vulcan rocket emerged from its hangar Friday for a 30-minute trek to its launch pad in Florida, finally moving into the starting blocks after a decade of development and testing.
This was the first time anyone had seen the full-size 202-foot-tall (61.6-meter) Vulcan rocket in its full form. Since ULA finished assembling the rocket last month, it has been cocooned inside the scaffolding of the company’s vertical hangar at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
On Friday, ULA’s ground crew rolled the Vulcan rocket and its mobile launch platform to its seaside launch pad. It was one of the last steps before the Vulcan rocket is cleared for liftoff Monday at 2:18 am EST (07:18 UTC). On Sunday afternoon, ULA engineers will gather inside a control center at Cape Canaveral to oversee an 11-hour countdown, when the Vulcan rocket will be loaded with methane, liquid hydrogen, and liquid oxygen propellants.
ULA has a 45-minute launch window to get the mission off the ground on Monday, and there is an 85 percent chance of good weather.
If the rocket doesn’t take off Monday, ULA has backup launch opportunities Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Then, the company would have to stand down until January 23, a gap in launch availability constrained by the trajectory of the Vulcan rocket’s payload. A commercial robotic Moon lander, developed by a Pennsylvania company named Astrobotic, is the primary passenger on the inaugural flight of Vulcan.
In the wild
This is a big moment for ULA, a 50-50 joint venture formed in 2006 by the merger of Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s launch divisions. The Vulcan rocket, quite literally, is the embodiment of the company’s future, said Mark Peller, ULA’s vice president of Vulcan development. It will replace ULA’s fleet of Atlas and Delta rockets, with lineages dating back to the early years of the Space Age.
“There was an opportunity to develop a new rocket that can do everything Atlas and Delta could do, but do it with even greater performance, and taking advantage of the latest technology,” Peller said Friday. “The system that we’ve developed, and we’re about to fly, is really positioning us for a very bright, prosperous future for many, many years to come.”
Facing stiff competition from SpaceX, still an upstart in the launch business a decade ago, ULA officials decided they needed a new rocket that was cheaper to build and fly than the Atlas V and Delta IV. Ars has traced the history of Vulcan, a timeline that includes lawsuits, a change in corporate leadership, delays and setbacks, and, most recently, reports that Boeing and Lockheed Martin have put ULA up for sale.
ULA has sold dozens of Vulcan missions to the US military and Amazon for its Project Kuiper broadband network. In the military’s case, the Pentagon wants to have at least two independent launch providers capable of hauling national security satellites into orbit, so ULA has been able to count on a steady diet of government contracts.
Amazon booked launches with almost every major Western launch company besides SpaceX, its competitor in the broadband satellite business. This also ensured ULA a hefty cut of work for Amazon’s $10 billion Kuiper satellite constellation.
The Vulcan rocket “has proven to already be an extremely competitive product in the marketplace, having an order book of over 70 missions before first flight, which is really unheard of,” Peller said. “So it is the future of our company, and we’re off to a great start on a really solid trajectory with Vulcan.”
But it still needs to fly, and ULA is putting its record of 100 percent mission success on the line with the Vulcan test flight slated for Monday.
“We have very rigorously gone through a qualification of Vulcan,” Peller said. “That stretched over several years, involved rigorous testing of the components, the subsystems, and the major elements of the rocket as well as testing here at the launch site, extensive simulation using the latest tools to do everything we can to fly the rocket in simulation before we actually fly it.
“Many of the new systems that are flying on Vulcan had the benefit of being introduced on Atlas and Delta in recent years. So many of the systems that we’re flying here actually have a fair amount of flight experience under their belts,” he continued. “But … this is still the first time the vehicle has flown, and we will watch this very carefully and see what we learn from this. We’re going into this very high confidence. If there are any observations with the first flight, we’re prepared to respond and address those, and turn around quickly to fly again.”
The new rocket’s first stage is powered by two methane-fueled BE-4 engines from Blue Origin. While they’ve been tested on the ground countless times, these engines have never flown before.
Vulcan’s upper stage, called the Centaur V, is an upgraded twin-engine version of the single-engine upper stage that flies on the Atlas V rocket. The hydrogen-fueled RL10 engines on the Centaur upper stage are similar in design to the ones flown on every Atlas V and Delta IV rocket, but the Centaur V is much larger. One of the upgraded upper stages for Vulcan exploded during a ground test last year, forcing ULA to push back the rocket’s debut flight for months while engineers strengthened the Centaur’s stainless steel hydrogen tank.
This version of the Vulcan rocket is fitted with two strap-on solid-fueled boosters from Northrop Grumman. These are higher-thrust boosters than the strap-on rockets used on ULA’s previous rockets. In the future, Vulcan rockets will come in variants with zero, two, four, or six solid rocket boosters, allowing ULA to match the vehicle’s lift capability with each mission’s requirements.
The most powerful version of Vulcan will outlift the largest rocket in ULA’s current fleet, the Delta IV Heavy. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket can handle heavier payloads flying to low-Earth orbit and has a similar lift capability to higher-altitude orbits.
ULA’s Vulcan, though, will enter service as a fully expendable rocket. The company plans to gradually introduce an upgrade to recover and reuse the two BE-4 engines, although Peller said Friday that it will take a “few years” to begin reusing engines.
According to ULA, the initial focus is to fully certify the Vulcan rocket to launch US military satellites later this year. The first Vulcan flight, which ULA calls “Cert-1,” will be followed by a “Cert-2” mission as soon as April to launch Sierra Space’s commercial Dream Chaser spaceplane on a resupply mission to the International Space Station.
If those two launches go flawlessly, the Space Force could sign off on launching national security payloads on Vulcan in the second half of this year.
Listing image by Stephen Clark/Ars Technica