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Vulcan Targets January 8th for Debut Flight

ULA’s Vulcan Rocket sits on LC-41 prior to its first Wet Dress Rehearsal.
Credit: ULA

After completion of a successful Wet Dress Rehearsal this week, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket is one step closer to its debut – entering a new chapter of American rocketry for both military and civilian space launch. The company now hopes to launch their Certification-1 mission carrying the Astrobotic Peregrine lunar lander no earlier than January 8th, 2024 at 2:18 AM Eastern Time.

Speaking on the website formerly known as Twitter, ULA CEO Tory Bruno discussed the success of the Wet Dress Rehearsal, stating: “It went great.  The critical events we wanted to demonstrate happened nominally and on the timeline. #VulcanRocket is now in the pipe for its first launch (CERT1) at the next lunar window on 8 January.” Yesterday’s Wet Dress Rehearsal, which had to be repeated due to a ground side issue, represents the final step in verifying systems for launch – ensuring that the systems and procedures for tanking are ready for flight. Certification-1, delayed from 2021, aims to verify Vulcan’s systems for flight, and certify it with a variety of customers, including the United States Space Force and NASA. With the completion of the Wet Dress Rehearsal, and the payload now fully encapsulated, Vulcan now must be rolled back for integration and final checkouts before returning to the launch pad at LC-41 prior to the January 8th campaign.

Centaur V is stacked atop its Vulcan first stage booster after receiving its two GEM-63XL boosters
Credit: ULA

The path to the inaugural launch of Vulcan has been marred with challenges, with the company encountering several key issues during the test and verification campaigns. Delivery delays of the Blue Origin provided BE-4 engines, the COVID-19 pandemic and an explosion of the Centaur V upper stage’s Structural Test Article resulted in the projected launch date for the vehicle slipping considerably. The explosion of the Structural Test Article necessitated structural changes for Centaur V, prompting ULA to swap the stage slated for use on the first flight. ULA has remained committed to Vulcan, and shown incredible resilience despite these challenges – with Bruno demonstrating a remarkable openness in discussing the process which he often refers to as the “countdown to Vulcan.” 

Though demand in the American launch market has increased, Falcon 9 has increasingly represented the bulk of launch vehicle supply, with SpaceX acting as a de facto monopoly. Vulcan coming online alongside other new players such as Blue Origin’s New Glenn and Firefly’s MLV could represent a crucial shift in a market in need of more options. Early wins for Vulcan included the second round of the National Security Space Launch contract, and Amazon’s Kuiper mega-constellation – securing 38 missions for the vehicle well ahead of its debut. Sierra Space has contracted the company to launch their Dream Chaser space plane for regular cargo resupply to the International Space Station, beginning with flight two of Vulcan. ULA also plans to include Vulcan in NASA’s Launch Service Provider on-ramp for future science mission consideration. 

Throughout the campaign, ULA has taken their time and worked through issues carefully – a necessary step when coordinating for the debut of a new launch system. Vulcan represents the culmination of years of hard work, and an important asset for civil and military space launch capability. With January 8th right around the corner, it may soon be time for the countdown to Vulcan to reach T-0.

Edited by Scarlet Dominik

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