CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A brand new rocket from a legacy launch company is now on the Space Coast. The Vulcan Centaur rocket is designed to usher in a new era for United Launch Alliance (ULA) since it will be replacing the two rockets currently flying for the company: the Atlas V and the Delta IV Heavy.

What You Need To Know

  • ULA is targeting the first launch Vulcan Centaur by the end of Q1 CY2023

  • Vulcan Certification Flight 1 (Vulcan Cert-1) will carry a trio of payloads, including a commercial lunar lander

  • ULA can use the Vulcan Centaur to fly national security missions

  • Two certification test flights are required before The Vulcan Centaur rocket will eventually replace both the Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy rockets

ULA’s R/S Rocketship, the barge used to transport rocket components, arrived into port Saturday night carrying the segments needed to assemble the new rocket out at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS). They were offloaded throughout the morning on Sunday.

“As a culmination of the design and manufacturing efforts this is significant. Our capable launch operations team is here, they’re going to take over the vehicle, they’ll start going over receiving and inspections and it’s the transition of our future,” said Gary Wentz, the vice president of Government and Commercial Programs at ULA. “So, it’s really exciting to see it here at the Cape.”

Onboard the barge, was the Vulcan first stage, the Centaur upper stage, the Interstage adapter and the payload fairings. All the components were manufactured in Decatur, Alabama. ULA contracts with Beyond Gravity (formerly Ruag Space), which manufactures its payload fairings, the part of the rocket that encapsulates the payload(s) onboard the rocket.


What is the Vulcan Centaur rocket?

Vulcan is the latest launch vehicle from ULA and is designed to take over launch duties from the Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy rockets.

The Atlas V has fewer than 20 flights left on its manifest, including the following:

  • 7 launches – crew missions with Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft
  • 2 launches – National Security Space Launch (NSSL) missions:

o   USSF-51 for U.S. Space Force

o   SILENTBARKER for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)

  • 1 launch – one of Viasat’s ViaSat-3 series spacecraft

ULA flew its final West Coast Delta IV Heavy mission in 2022. A ULA spokesperson said this rocket has two more flights remaining: NROL-68 in 2023 and NROL-70 in 2024.

“It’s bittersweet to see us flying out the Atlas and Delta vehicles. They have a long heritage of 100 percent mission success, which is really critical to us and the way we structured our missions and to support our customers,” Wentz said. “As Vulcan comes on, we intend to continue that same level of rigor and discipline as we go through and we’ll launch when we’re ready.”

Vulcan’s main stage is powered by a pair of Blue Origin-manufactured BE-4 engines and provides about 550,000 pounds of thrust. That initial power is augmented by up to six Northrop Grumman Graphite Epoxy Motor (GEM) 63XL Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs), which can provide up to an additional 459,600 pounds of thrust.

GEM 63 boosters first started flying on the Atlas V rocket.

The Centaur upper stage is powered by 10 RL10C-X engines manufactured by Aerojet Rocketdyne. In April 2022, ULA awarded a 116-engine contract order to Aerojet Rocketdyne to support the launch cadence needed for the Vulcan Centaur. These engines are “designed, fabricated, assembled and tested at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility located in West Palm Beach, Florida,” the company said last spring.

Vulcan is capable of launching to a multitude of orbits, including Geosynchronous Earth Orbit, Low Earth Orbit (Reference, ISS and Polar), Medium Earth Orbit and Trans-lunar Injection.

As of this month, ULA has more than 70 launches with Vulcan on its manifest. Of those, 38 will launch satellites for Amazon’s Project Kuiper internet constellation and 20 to 30 will launch NSSL missions for the U.S. Space Force and the NRO.

There will also be a number of missions launching Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser, which will be used for cargo and science missions to the International Space Station, similar to those currently conducted by SpaceX’s Dragon and Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus.


Vulcan Cert-1

Now that the main components for the Vulcan Centaur Certification Flight 1 (Vulcan Cert-1) are at the Cape, the launch operations team will take the rocket through a series of tests before it is ready for launch as soon as the end of Q1.

Wentz said they will start by taking the vehicle to the Horizontal Processing Facility (HPF) and going through some inspections and check outs. On the back half of the week, he said they plan to bring the Vulcan booster vertical on the new Vulcan Launch Platform in the Verticle Integration Facility (VIF) for additional testing. That will be followed by then stacking the Centaur Upper Stage on top.

“That’ll be the first time that we’ve mated the booster with the upper stage in the Vehicle Integration Facility,” Wentz said. “Then we’ll roll out to the pad and we’ll do a series of tanking tests, checking out the booster systems, the Centaur systems and then we’ll do a combined systems test.”

“Upon successful completion of all that, we’ll go go and we’ll do another combined tanking test and culminate in a flight readiness firing.”

Wentz said they will fire the engines for about six seconds for that flight readiness firing. That will be followed by a series of assessments of the vehicle and replacement of limited life items, like igniters.

Finally, they’ll return to the VIF, integrate the payload and prepare for launch.

This first mission for Vucan will fly in a VC2S configuration. “VC” stands for “Vulcan Centaur.” The number, in this case “2,” represents the number of solid rocket boosters needed and the final letter stands for the payload fairing length.

VC2S will use a 51-foot-long Standard payload fairing. Nestled inside will be a few different payloads. This mission will send the first two Kuiper prototype satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander to the Moon and a Celestis Memorial Spaceflight payload into deep space.

The remains of several people connected to the original Star Trek series will be launched on what Celestis dubbed the “Enterprise Flight,” including show creator Gene Roddenberry along with actors Nichelle Nichols and Jackson DeForest Kelley.

It hasn’t been determined yet whether this first launch will take place during the day or the night. Wentz said ULA doesn’t have constraints either way and said it will largely be driven by the mission needs of Astrobotic.


Vulcan Cert-2 and beyond

ULA teams in Decatur, Alabama, aren’t waiting until the first launch of the Vulcan Centaur is complete. Wentz noted that they’re well into the production on Vulcan Cert-2.

“The minute they finished the Cert-1 vehicle, they’re continuing on Cert-2 boosters, proceeding into the final integration, assembly and checkout,” Wentz said. “We’re scheduled to ship that early this summer and we’re on target for late summer launch.”

The Cert-2 mission will launch a Dream Chaser for the first time and the rocket will fly in a VC4L configuration, with “L” standing for a 70-foot-long Long payload fairing. 

Completing these two certification flights on time is crucial for ULA since that will allow them to start flying NSSL missions. In August 2020, they were granted 60 percent of missions that stem from a firm, fixed-price, indefinite delievery contract as part of the Space Force’s NSSL Phase 2 procurement.

Phase 2 missions are those ordered between 2020 and 2024 with launches taking place between fiscal years 2022 through 2027. Under the first three years of procurements, these are the missions assigned to ULA for the Vulcan Centaur:

  • Year 1 FY2020 - $337 million

o   USSF-51 (reassigned from Vulcan Centaur to Atlas V)

o   USSF-106

  • Year 2 FY2021 - $224.3 million

o   USSF-112

o   USSF-87

  • Year 3 FY2022 - $566 million

o   GPS III SV07

o   USSF-23

o   USSF-42

o   Wideband Global SatCom (WGS-11+)

o   USSF-16

Wentz said that if Dream Chaser isn’t ready in time for launch in late summer, ULA may look to fly another customer to keep its certification timeline on track. He said the first NSSL mission aboard Vulcan is targeting launch in Novebmer.

“We’re always considering all the options as to what we can fly and as soo as the customers are ready, we’ll be ready to fly,” Wentz said.

The Vulcan Centaur’s debut is nearly a decade in the making. It was first announced as the Next Generation Launch Sytem back in 2015 and opened up the naming to a popular vote, which resulted in the name “Vulcan.”

Now that the first launch is tantalizingly close, Wentz said the whole team is eagerly anticipating the big moment.

“I think it’s really exciting to have this vehicle here. It’s the first of a kind coming in. it’s replacing an Atlas and Delta capability,” Wentz said. “So, we’ll have 100 percent and beyond of our capability in one single-stick vehicle and we’re really excited to fly.”