On Friday, January 5, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket rolled to the pad for the first time, ahead of its first flight scheduled for January 8, 2024. This pad roll represents the culmination of nearly a decade and a half of development work across the American aerospace industry, ringing in a new era for modern rocketry.
After a lengthy integration and checkout period, ULA’s Vulcan rocket went through the Launch Readiness Review (LRR) on Thursday, verifying that the launch vehicle was healthy and is ready for its first flight. The evaluation was led by ULA Launch Director Tom Heter III at the Advanced Spaceflight Operation Center (ASOC) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Following a successful LRR, the vehicle began its 600 meter roll to the pad at 10:39 AM Eastern Time atop its Mobile Launch Platform.
Monday’s flight will be the first certification mission, known as Certification-1, for the rocket out of two needed before it can start flying National Security Space Launch (NSSL) missions for the U.S. Space Force and higher complexity science missions for NASA. Liftoff is scheduled to take place during a 45-minute launch window that opens at 2:18 a.m. EST (0718 UTC) the morning of Jan. 8.
Should ULA be unable to launch on Monday, additional opportunities exist on Jan 9th at 12:15 AM, Jan 10th at 12:12 AM, and Jan 11th at 12:40 AM, according to ULA’s Gary Wentz. According to Wentz, the next opportunity is Jan. 23, with the window timings and durations varying due to “orbital mechanics and … being able to rendezvous for the lunar injection” – each day varying significantly.
As a fully integrated vehicle, this configuration of Vulcan known as VC2S, sporting two solid rocket motors and a short fairing, stands at 202 feet tall. Vulcan is powered by a pair of Blue Origin BE-4 engines on the first stage and a pair of RL10C-1-1 engines from Aerojet Rocketdyne on the Centaur V upper stage. Assisting the first stage is a pair of Northrop Grumman GEM-63XL solid rocket motors, derivatives of which have already successfully flown on the company’s Atlas V.
The payload for Vulcan’s first flight is Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander, flying its first mission as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Service program. This mission aims to land in the Gruithuisen Gamma region, a lunar dome in Mare Imbrium. This mission aims to characterize the local radiation and dust environment in support of later Artemis missions, which aims to land the first woman and person of color on the lunar surface before the end of the decade. Vulcan will also be launching a number of secondary payloads, notably Celestis’ Enterprise Flight, a collection of DNA samples and cremated remains. Notably this flight features the ashes of ‘Star Trek’ creator Gene Roddenberry and stars James Doohan and Nichelle Nichols, will be launched to a heliocentric orbit around the Sun.
Following Vulcan’s inaugural flight, the next mission currently slated to fly is CERT-2, launching Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser space plane to the International Space Station, demonstrating the new cargo system for NASA as part of their Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract. This launch is currently slated for Q2 of 2024, however, other missions may take priority due to Vulcan’s extensive backlog.
With Vulcan’s journey to the pad complete, there remains very little in the way of the launch vehicle’s maiden flight. With weather trending at 85% favorable for launch for the Monday morning attempt, the countdown to Vulcan may be over in the near future.