Despite pandemic, ULA's Vulcan Centaur still scheduled for inaugural launch in 2021

ULA CEO Tory Bruno discussed some details of the company's year and looked ahead to 2021.

Posted: Dec 18, 2020 4:31 AM

Depite the challenges presented by the pandemic during the majority of 2020, United Launch Alliance's (ULA) biggest new project, the launch of the Vulcan Centaur rocket, is still on track for 2021.

President and CEO Tory Bruno confirmed the news during an end of the year conference call on Thursday.

He said production is ongoing at the manufacturing facility in Decatur.

"Decatur is hopping! We have 31 rocket stages in flow right now. So, it is a very busy rocket factory with all of the configurations in flow at once," Bruno said.

Bruno noted that they have had some cases of COVID-19 come up among their workforce, but said that most cases are traced to spread in the community.

"And even though the cases themselves are a relatively small number for us, we take very aggressive mitigation when someone does test positive. And so, whoever they were in contact with will be immediately quarantined for a number of days or tested before they can come back and, of course, the factory itself is cleaned," Bruno said.

Despite that, the company was still able to launch the Mars Perseverance rover over the summer and the first couple of launches for the United States Space Force starting in the spring. Production of the Vulcan Centaur also continued during the year in Decatur.

The Vulcan Centaur has been in development since 2014 and uses a combination of engines and boosters provided by Aerojet Rockedyne, Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin.

Bruno said on Thursday that ULA has two BE-4 engines in Decatur that are near flight configuration, but are not the final design. They are being used in a pathfinding capacity, which means they will be assembled into a flight booster where it will be brought to Cape Canaveral for what he said is essentially a wet dress rehearsal. 

Over summer 2021, Bruno said they will receive the flight-configured engines. He said that the BE-4 is outperforming their expectations.

"The flight configuration has many, many seconds and minutes of testing on it now and it has just run wonderfully. So, we are looking forward to a, knock on wood, very quiet qualification test run and we will be off to space," Bruno said.

The BE-4 engines provide the booster propulsion for the Vulcan Centaur. The first few to fly will use engines that come from Blue Origin's facility in Kent, Washington, that are tested in Texas. 

Eventually, production will shift to Blue Origin's Huntsville manufacturing facility that officially opened in February, but Bruno said it's not quite ready to take over just yet.

"The Huntsville factory right now is full of equipment and lots of things are going on. We're monitoring that very closely. They're making excellent progress," Bruno said.

"We anticipate that we'll fly a handful of Vulcans first with the infrastructure at Kent and in Texas as they transition too and then ramp up to full production in Huntsville. So, not yet, but it is coming."

When it does fly, the Vulcan Centaur's first mission will be to carry Astrobotic's lunar lander to the Moon, which would mark the first commercial lander to be sent to the lunar surface.

"Astrobotic, believes they will be ready, and we believe they will to, to go to space in the fourth quarter, a little bit closer to the end of the year. This was their first space craft and they need to get it just right," Bruno said.

That's just one of ten scheduled launches for ULA in 2021. Bruno said there will be four launches of national security satellites, three launches for NASA and three commercial launches. 

Two of the commercial launches are for Boeing's Starliner, including one that is a crewed flight to the International Space Station. 

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