ULA’s first Vulcan launch pushed to end of the year
After an explosion in March, the company launched an investigation into what happened to its new heavy-lift rocket during testing in Alabama.
United Launch Alliance will fly its much-anticipated heavy-lift rocket by the end of this year—and targets 2024 for its first mission with the U.S. Space Force.
Development on the Vulcan Centaur rocket is “essentially done. All the components of the rocket including the booster have been qualified, with the exception of one single item, which is the qualification of the structure of the Centaur V,” ULA CEO Tory Bruno told reporters Thursday.
ULA launched an investigation after a qualification test in March caused an explosion at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
Bruno said the Centaur upper stage suffered an “anomaly” after a hydrogen leak developed about halfway through its 15th test run, due to ULA using a new “laser weld” on the rocket’s seams. The strength of these laser welds is “less than we had assessed,” Bruno said.
“That in itself would not have caused a failure. However, the two things together, higher loads [and] somewhat lower strength in the welds are what caused the crack to begin,” he said.
To mitigate the issue, Bruno said they are beefing up the welds with an extra layer of stainless steel.
“That's the corrective action. Not a very sophisticated or high-tech or high-risk action or design because we just simply needed to be just a little bit thicker, if it [was] just 20 percent thicker, we would not be having this [teleconference],” Bruno said.
ULA is positioning this rocket to compete against SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which is considered the workhorse in the market for medium and heavy launch vehicles.
Vulcan has been behind schedule for years, mostly due to delays in developing Vulcan’s main engine, BE-4, which is supplied by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin.
The new rocket, Centaur 5, has the same type of technology as ULA’s previous Centaur rocket, but scaled way up, Bruno said.
The rocket is “intended to operate far beyond low Earth orbit, where all other stages are optimized to operate, which means it's going to ascend to an altitude before it drops off its satellite as much as 20 to 40 times higher than LEO with a duration of as much as 20 to 30 times longer,” Bruno said.
The first certification flight will launch by the end of this year. The second will fly in the first half of 2024, and the first national security space launch for the Space Force will fly in the second half of 2024, Bruno said.
“We have the root cause. We have the corrective action. Corrective action is low risk, straightforward. We've already got the assets nearly built. There are many more assets, by the way. We never stopped the line on Centaur through all of this,” he said.
Despite the setback, Vulcan will still fly the same mission for the Space Force, Bruno said, called USSF-106, which will launch a navigation satellite to geostationary-Earth orbit.
The satellite, Navigation Technology Satellite-3, or NTS-3, is built by L3Harris and funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory. It will be the Pentagon’s first experimental, integrated navigation satellite system in 50 years, according to AFRL.
Since the space launch market is primarily dominated by industry leaders like ULA and SpaceX, the Pentagon has set up its next competition for satellite launches to usher new entrants into the heavy-lift market.
The Space Force announced in February that it would split the bidding for dozens of launches into two groups. “Lane 1” will include the “more risk tolerant” missions, “Lane 2” the more challenging and “critical” ones.