We have a launch date! Tory Bruno, United Launch Alliance’s CEO was interviewed by CNBC on Tuesday, October 24, 2023, during the annual CNBC Technology Executive Council Summit. He said ULA is targeting December 24 for the inaugural Vulcan Centaur launch.
A much anticipated first launch, hindered by issues with the development of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines and the Centaur V 2nd stage, is approaching the final preparation. Certification-1, as it’s been called, will be the culmination of years of development and testing.
Setting the stage
The Core Stage of Vulcan, which completed a successful Static Fire in June, has been idle in the ULA facility in Florida for some time. But in the last few days, technicians started final preparations before launch, moving it onto the Launch platform, inside the Vertical Integration Facility.
Today is the day we've been anticipating as the ULA team begins launch operations at Cape Canaveral to ready the first #VulcanRocket for its inaugural flight! We are targeting Dec. 24 for Certification-1 (#Cert1) to send a commercial lunar lander to the Moon. #CountdowntoVulcan pic.twitter.com/02rxbpvelc— ULA (@ulalaunch) October 26, 2023
There, it will wait for the arrival of the two GEM 63XL Solid Rocket Motors, the second stage and most importantly, the payload. The rocket will undergo a wet dress rehearsal, followed by payload integration. Then, it’s GO for launch, from the Space Launch Complex 41, ULA’s launch pad for Atlas and now Vulcan rockets.
Speaking to CNBC, Tory Bruno said that the company aims to launch several Vulcan Rockets in 2024, ramping up to a launch every two weeks in the second half of 2025. In order to reach this ambitious goal, which has even required remodeling of the ULA assembly line in Alabama, ULA has started producing and storing various components in advance. Bruno specifically talked about the SRBs, being prepared in advance to adapt to an ever-increasing launch frequency.
Centaur V, the troubled 2nd Stage
The Centaur V 2nd stage had troubles during testing back in March. A hydrogen leak had caused an explosion during stress testing of a propellant tank, damaging both the prototype and the testing rig.
Since then an investigation has been going on, parallel to the successful testing of the core stage, however delaying the launch to the end of the year as anticipated in July. Since then, the issues have been found, with several improvements to the structure of the tank. Now, according to Tory Bruno, the second stage is being prepared for shipment to Florida.
Official certification work is still underway, but Bruno said to CNBC he expects it to be completed simultaneously with the last finishing touches, in November.
In case of a delay of any kind, Tory Bruno said the dates of December 25 and 26 are also available for launch, with a further occasion in January. This kind of delay between each launch window is due to one of the two payloads’ target, the surface of the Moon.
While the rocket should have also carried the first Amazon Kuiper satellites (instead launched on an Atlas V), Vulcan Centaur will carry Astrobotic’s Peregrine Lunar Lander and a payload from Celestis, a space memorial company.
A last look before the launch
The Astrobotic Peregrine Lander, built under the NASA CLPS program, is the most susceptible payload of the mission. As explained by Tory Bruno, the launch windows for Cert-1 are mostly influenced by the required non-stop contact the Lander will need to establish with the Deep Space Network during its journey to the Moon. So even a day late could jeopardize the whole mission, with the probe not being able to communicate with Earth properly.
There’s good news from Astrobotic itself. The company made known their lander has been prepared for shipping.
As announced on X, the lander has been covered for transport and loaded on a truck and is now traveling to Florida for the integration with Vulcan Centaur.
After the second stage and payloads are delivered to ULA, all components will finally be ready for integration. With Cert-1, a new era for ULA will start, having already important governmental and private customers for future launches. And as the year comes to an end, there will be a great feat waiting for us on Christmas Eve.