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ULA Provides Update on Cert-2 Mission

Vulcan lifts off on its inaugural flight on January 8th, 2024 as part of the Cert-1 mission.
Credit: Brandon Berkoff

On Wednesday, June 26 2024, in a media roundtable hosted by United Launch Alliance, company President and CEO Tory Bruno laid out the path for Vulcan Centaur’s second flight, Cert-2. ULA has been eager to fly their flagship Vulcan Centaur, the company’s medium to heavy lift, next generation rocket in order to certify the vehicle for coveted Department of Defense missions. The company hopes that by moving to a mass simulator, they can expedite certification and ensure that national security needs are met before the end of 2024.

At the media roundtable on Wednesday, Bruno  highlighted that Cert-2, now scheduled for September, will carry an inert payload the company originally built as a backup for the first Vulcan launch. Cert-1, which carried Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, launched successfully on January 8th, 2024. It will take the place of Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser, a reusable cargo spaceplane that was to make its first flight to the International Space Station. “We have been informed by Sierra Space that they feel that they have significant risk towards making the mid-year flight date” previously planned for Cert-2, he said. “They told us they will step aside in order to support our critical national security space missions that will come afterwards.” Dream Chaser has been marred by delays in testing and integration, and was recently shipped to the Kennedy Space Center for pre-launch processing, notably without its full heat shield installed. Removal of Dream Chaser from Cert-2 indicates an indefinite delay to the spaceplane’s debut, now sometime well into next year, a further blow to the already late program’s schedule.  

Dream Chaser sits at Glenn Research Center’s Armstrong Test Facility, where it underwent thermal and vacuum tests prior to being shipped to Kennedy Space Center.
Credit: Sierra Space

Cert-2 represents the final hurdle in a series of high priority missions required to green light the Vulcan-Centaur system to begin a regular cadence of flights for the Department of Defense, as well as receive additional data for customers like NASA and the commercial market. The company says it wants to launch two of those crucial DoD missions, designated USSF-106 and USSF-87, before the end of the year. This will enable the company to begin chipping away at a number of crucial missions in their NSSL Phase 2 backlog, the first of which has been moved to Atlas V to contend with schedule delays.

Under the original mission architecture, the rocket flying in the four solid rocket motor VC4 configuration would drop Dream Chaser off in its 51.6º parking orbit, and then conduct a series of exercises to test the mettle of Centaur V. The new plan calls for launching Cert-2 in September carrying an inert payload into low Earth orbit, in the VC2 configuration, with a mission more focused on proving out the upper stage. The payload will remain attached to the upper stage while ULA conducts “experiments and demonstrations” of technologies the company is considering incorporating into the Centaur, details of which Bruno did not disclose but are likely to do with cryogenic fuel management. “Then we’ll conduct some maneuvers post the basic mission just to help us better understand the full capabilities of the Centaur V and to measure some of its attributes,” he said. The Centaur V upper stage will then go to a final disposal orbit that Bruno said complies with the U.S. government’s Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices.

Bruno did not give a timeframe for how long he thought the certification process would take post flight, but believed it could be done with enough margin to allow ULA to perform both Space Force missions before the end of the year. This is in part due to the long gap between flight 1 and flight 2, during which the Space Force has had time to review the data from the Cert-1 launch in January and preparations being done in advance of Cert-2. “It’s sort of pre-staged and ready to go,” he said of the work required to certify the rocket with the Department of Defense. After the launch of Cert-2, ULA will deliver data and analysis from Cert-2 to the Space Force to allow it to quickly compare actual with expected performance. “It will turn pretty quickly, in plenty of time to fly two more times this year.” This comes as a tremendous reassurance to the Pentagon, which had expressed their concern through a late fee over schedule slips and delays for the long awaited national security lifter. 

The Cert-2 Vulcan is unloaded from Rocketship, the carrier vessel which transports ULA rocket stages.
Credit: ULA

Towards the end of the call, Bruno highlighted significant work going forward to support an uptick in Vulcan launches, as well as plans for future reuse. Notably, he highlighted the tremendous work being done on the Sensible Modular Autonomous Return Technology, or SMART reuse track for the vehicle. The company has already flown a hypersonic inflatable atmospheric decelerator, or HIAD, demo on the LOFTID mission – which launched in Tandem with JPSS-2 in 2022. According to Bruno, the SMART program had cleared its Preliminary Design Review earlier this year, and will move into the final Critical Design Review process before manufacturing and implementation begins on future Vulcan flights. This initial implementation will test on the fly, by first returning engines before hotfiring and eventually reflying BE-4 engine pods. ULA is also making strides in advancing its ground systems architecture both at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and Vandenberg Space Force Base. Notably, work has accelerated on the East Coast with the Spaceflight Processing Operations Center facility coming online as a new integration area for Vulcan to support parallel flow – enabling multiple vehicles to be readied at once. 

With the new path to flight established, the Vulcan team can focus on delivering Cert-2 in the coming months, beginning with a series of pad tests in August. The start of this campaign is a crucial milestone for the establishment of the company as a power player throughout the 2020s – continuing a legacy of excellence that reaches back several decades. From an outside perspective, ULA seems ready to meet the needs and challenges of a changing global landscape – one that will see increased demand on one of the nation’s most dependable launch providers.

Edited by Scarlet Dominik, Beverly Casillas and Emily B.

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