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ULA Previews Christmas Eve Vulcan Debut and the Rocket’s 70-Mission Backlog 

By Rachel Jewett | November 15, 2023
      A GEM 63XL solid rocket booster is maneuvered into position for installation during Vulcan stacking operations. Photo: ULA

      A GEM 63XL solid rocket booster is maneuvered into position for installation during Vulcan stacking operations. Photo: ULA

      The Centaur V upper stage for the first Vulcan Centaur rocket has arrived in Cape Canaveral ahead of its debut mission, set for Christmas Eve. United Launch Alliance (ULA) CEO Tory Bruno gave an update on the launch to reporters on Wednesday, ahead of the rocket’s debut. 

      The upper stage, which arrived at the Cape on Monday, will now be integrated with a booster which is already on site and previously went through a flight readiness firing and hot firing. The next step is a wet dress rehearsal with the Centaur V, then encapsulating the customer, the Astrobotic Peregrine lunar lander. 

      ULA is targeting 1:49 a.m. EST on Dec. 24, and the mission has an instantaneous launch window because of the kind of lunar insertion required for the Peregrine lander. There are also instantaneous windows available on Christmas on the 25, and on the 26, and another window in January. 

      Peregrine will carry 21 payloads from governments, companies, universities, and NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. The lander will attempt a soft landing at the Gruithuisen Domes on the Moon and support lunar surface payload operations for about 10 days. 

      This first mission for ULA’s anticipated Vulcan Centaur rocket was previously targeted for May of this year, but the Centaur V upper stage exploded during qualification testing in late March, grounding the launch campaign. ULA dealt with the issue, which was a leak in a weld on the hydrogen tank at the top of the structure from the load on the weld. 

      Wednesday’s call came a day after Ars Technica reported that Lockheed Martin and Boeing, which own ULA as a joint venture, are nearing selecting a buyer for the rocket company. Three buyers include a private equity fund, Blue Origin, and an aerospace firm looking to increase its space portfolio.

      Bruno would not comment on any potential acquisition, only saying that “ULA is in great shape and continues to be in great shape after our transformation and our many years-long presence in the commercial marketplace.”

      The Vulcan rocket has a backlog of about 70 launches, a mix of government and commercial missions valued in the “billions” of dollars, Bruno said. This backlog includes 38 launches for Amazon’s Kuiper constellation, under a launch deal announced last year, and National Security Space Launch (NSSL) missions as well.  

      “It’s a substantial backlog,” Bruno said. “It’s unprecedented in the launch business to have a backlog [this large] before the first flight.” 

      ULA is sold out in 2024, but has some limited availability for new contracts in the coming years, he said. 

      Bruno applauded the team that has worked on Vulcan’s development, saying it has been one of the more well executed development programs in his aerospace career. 

      Vulcan “advanced the state of engineering to a vehicle that is much more capable, much more affordable and has a lot of flexibility,” Bruno said.

      “It’s especially critical to national security, but [did not require] fundamental new understandings of material processes or basic physics,” he added. “We were able to march through and have a pretty orderly development program. They’re all hard — because it really is rocket science. But this was probably not the most difficult one we had to do. It helped a lot and I had a really great team.”