Air Force, ULA agree on the process for certifying Vulcan launch vehicle

The agreement could help streamline the evaluation process; the Space and Missile Systems Center expects to sign similar agreements with SpaceX and Orbital-ATK.

The Air Force has agreed with United Launch Alliance to move forward with the process for certifying ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle for National Security Space Missions. The Vulcan, officially the company’s Next Generation Launch System, is intended to replace the Atlas V launcher used for many military satellites, and to make launches less expensive by employing reusable components.

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center and ULA, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, or CRADA, which is designed to facilitate the exchange of data while protecting the company’s proprietary data, the Air Force said in a release. The agreement lets the Space and Missile Systems Center make evaluations according to the Air Force’s New Entrant Certification Guide, which, among other things will include the monitoring at least two certification flights.

The Space and Missile Systems Center said it also expects to sign CRADAs with ULA competitors Space X, for its Falcon Heavy rocket, and Orbital-ATK for that company’s Next Generation Launcher.

Reusable components—ULA has said, for example, that Vulcan would have a reusable main engine and upper stage—are a big part of the push to make access to space less expensive.

Another factor for ULA is its use of the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine in the Atlas V. The Air Force received pressure from Congress to find a replacement for the RD-180 after Russian incursions into Ukraine in 2014 and subsequent sanctions from the United States.

In addition to development contracts to ULA, SpaceX and Orbital-ATK, the Air Force early this year awarded Aerojet Rocketdyne a contract to develop a prototype for its booster-stage AR1 rocket propulsion system.

Competition for a piece of the Air Force’s satellite launches has heated up over the past several years. ULA so far has held a virtual monopoly on launches of the service’s military satellites under the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. But SpaceX sued the Air Force in 2014 over the $11 billion, sole-source EELV contract. SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, claimed his company could launch satellite more cheaply and pushed to be able to compete for launch contracts. SpaceX eventually dropped the lawsuit after the Air Force certified the company’s Falcon 9 rocket and said it could compete for future contracts.

Currently, ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV, and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Upgrade are the launch vehicles certified to send national security satellites into space, the Air Force said.