WASHINGTON — The first flight of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket is scheduled for May 4, a slight delay from the company’s plan to fly the launch vehicle during the first quarter of this year.
The company’s CEO, Tory Bruno, told reporters during a Feb. 23 phone briefing the Denver, Colorado-based business expects the rocket will be ready by mid-April. However, one of the payloads it will carry — a lunar lander built by space robotics company Astrobotic Technology — can only fly during a small window of time each month because of landing conditions on the moon. Its April window falls early in the month, pushing the next launch opportunity into May.
ULA, along with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is one of two companies with rockets that are certified to fly national security space missions for the U.S. Defense Department and the intelligence community. Its Vulcan launch vehicle will replace the Atlas V, bringing more power and the ability to carry heavier payloads.
Bruno said the delay is not a significant setback and gives the company extra time to ensure the debut launch of Vulcan goes smoothly. The rocket’s first mission will feature three payloads launched to three different orbits, which Bruno said is a somewhat “stressing” task.
“We’re being careful, and we’re being thoughtful to make sure we have a successful mission,” he said. “We want very much to get this right.”
Vulcan is scheduled to carry its first DoD satellite at the end of this year, but it must first complete two certification flights. The early May mission will count as the first, and a second flight carrying Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser craft is scheduled for later this year.
Bruno said he doesn’t expect the first flight’s delay to impact the company’s national security certification, though he noted ULA will need a few months between its first and second launch to review Vulcan’s performance and fine-tune where necessary.
“We’re going to want to study our first flight very, very thoroughly,” he said.
With Vulcan’s completion, ULA is eyeing a greater share of the commercial launch market. Bruno said that by the end of 2025, the company expects to be flying missions every two weeks. Along with its share of national security space launches, the company has won contracts in the last two years from Amazon to fly 47 launches for its Project Kuiper program, a constellation of more than 3,000 satellites that will expand broadband access in underserved regions.
Along with its greater power and heavier payload capacity, Vulcan will also bring reusability into ULA’s portfolio. Bruno said he expects the company to begin demonstrating reusability of the rocket’s propulsion system “within a handful of years.”
“I don’t want to say exactly when because it’s part of the contract we have with one of our customers at this time, and we’re not releasing the details of that,” Bruno said. “But it will take a couple of years to actually be reusing the engines.”
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.