United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket is set for its long-awaited inaugural launch on January 8th, 2024 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. This flight will mark the first time ULA’s next-generation launch vehicle takes flight as the company aims to provide upgraded capabilities to meet growing launch demands in the 2020s.
Lead-Up to Vulcan’s First Launch
ULA has been developing the Vulcan Centaur rocket for over 5 years to replace its aging Atlas and Delta fleet. The new partially reusable rocket is designed to launch more often and at lower cost while providing heavy-lift capability to meet National Security Space requirements.
Vulcan leverages unique technologies like dual BE-4 engines from Blue Origin and an advanced upper stage named Centaur V. Last month, the 172-foot tall rocket rolled out to the pad at Cape Canaveral where it has been undergoing preparations for this crucial test flight, dubbed VCF1.
“Vulcan Centaur’s first flight is a major milestone for ULA and our nearly 14,000 team members,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and chief executive officer. “In addition to launching missions for America’s vital national security space assets, Vulcan Centaur will launch missions that deliver scientific breakthroughs, enable space exploration and expand space commerce.”
Objectives for VCF1 Flight
For VCF1, rather than a commercial satellite, Vulcan will send an uncrewed test version of Astrobotic’s lunar lander to cislunar space in order validate performance and set the stage for a crewed Artemis II mission around the Moon planned later in 2024.
“We are grateful to Astrobotic and our mission partners for the opportunity to demonstrate Vulcan Centaur’s capabilities on this inaugural flight,” said Bruno. “Our goal on VCF1 is not only to gather flight data on our new rocket, but also launch customer payloads to precise destinations in space as we will for future missions.”
If successful, Vulcan’s first launch will:
- Validate overall performance of the new launch vehicle
- Confirm ignition and operation of dual BE-4 first stage engines
- Test cryogenic Centaur upper stage and RL10C-X engine
- Insert Astrobotic’s lunar lander on trajectory to cislunar orbit
- Pave way for additional Vulcan missions later in 2024
Vulcan’s maiden voyage is a crucial demonstration that will set the foundation for ULA’s plans over the next decade.
Blue Origin Bidding for ULA as Launch Nears
As ULA gears up for the inaugural flight of its next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket this weekend, reports have emerged that Blue Origin has submitted a bid to purchase a majority stake in the launch services company.
Vulcan and its BE-4 first stage engines were co-developed by ULA and Blue Origin in a strategic partnership over the last five years. If Blue Origin successfully acquires ULA, it would obtain in-house launch capabilities to orbit its planned space stations and other large-scale projects under development.
“Blue Origin and ULA have had a strong partnership for years,” said Bob Smith, Blue Origin’s CEO. “We would welcome the opportunity to continue supporting ULA’s purpose-built rocket families while fulfilling Blue Origin’s vision to help millions of people living and working in space.”
Having a corporate owner focused on expanding human spaceflight could enable ULA to be more ambitious with Vulcan by accelerating launch cadence and investing in new technologies. However, there are also concerns that Blue Origin’s influence could shift ULA’s direction away from supporting critical national security space missions which have been its primary business for over a decade.
The timing of Blue Origin’s bid so close to Vulcan’s first launch seems intended to be opportunistic in hopes of acquiring ULA and its next-generation rocket as the system is proves itself.
Outlook After Inaugural Vulcan Launch
If successful, VCF1 will mark a major accomplishment for ULA’s new rocket while also serving as a springboard for an ambitious 2024 manifest. Vulcan has nearly 30 launches booked over the next 5 years, mostly for U.S. military and commercial satellites.
ULA intends to launch Vulcan over 8 times in 2024, including missions for Amazon’s Kuiper internet constellation, Astrobotic’s lunar landers, and the Psyche spacecraft to explore a metal-rich asteroid.
The company also plans to introduce new Vulcan configurations like a reusable booster, extended payload fairings, and advanced upper stage engines over the next few years to expand capabilities.
This first launch is a stepping stone to ULA someday achieving a targeted launch cadence of over 30 Vulcan rockets per year in the late 2020s as space industry demand continues growing. With Blue Origin’s possible buyout bid looming ahead, the stakes are high for Vulcan’s first flight this weekend.
Table: Vulcan Centaur Rocket Specifications
|172 ft (no payload fairing)
|17 ft (first stage), 14 ft (upper stage)
|Payload to LEO
|Payload to GTO
|First Stage Propellant
|First Stage Thrust
|2 x 550,000 lbf
|First Stage Engines
|2 x BE-4
|Upper Stage Engine
|1 x RL10C-X
The maiden launch of ULA’s new heavy-lift Vulcan Centaur rocket in 2024 promises to be a spectacle while inaugurating the next generation of space launch capabilities. This crucial test flight brings both opportunities and uncertainty around Blue Origin’s bid for ULA on the eve of Vulcan’s debut. If successful, VCF1 will validate years of development effort by ULA and represent a bold step in expanding access to space this decade.
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