For the first time, ULAs Vulcan rocket is fully stacked at Cape Canaveral

raising / United Launch Alliance’s first Vulcan rocket is 202 feet (61.6 meters) tall with the addition of its payload fairing.

United Launch Alliance’s first Vulcan rocket is fully assembled in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in preparation for its inaugural flight next month.

Technicians raised the payload fairing of the Vulcan rocket, which contains a commercial lunar lander from Astrobotic, on top of the launch vehicle Wednesday morning at ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility. This milestone follows the early morning transfer of the payload fairing from a nearby facility where Astrobotic’s lunar lander is powered up for its flight to the Moon.

ULA’s new rocket rolled between its vertical hangar and the launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station several times for countdown rehearsals and fueling tests. But ULA only needed the first stage and upper stage of the Vulcan rocket to complete those tests. Adding the payload shroud on Wednesday marked the first time ULA has fully stacked a Vulcan rocket, which stands about 202 feet (61.6 meters) tall, still surrounded by scaffolding and work platforms. inside its assembly building.

This moves the launch company closer to the first flight of the Vulcan, the vehicle set to replace ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. After some final checkout and a vacation break, the ground crew will bring the Vulcan rocket to its launch pad in preparation for liftoff at 2:18 a.m. ET (07:18 UTC) on January 8.

The launch was previously scheduled for December 24, but ULA delayed the flight until the next launch window to resolve ground system issues discovered during one of the recent Vulcan countdown rehearsals. Astrobotic’s first robotic lunar lander, named Peregrine Mission One, has just a few days each month when it can leave Earth and make its way to the Moon. The launch and trajectory must be timed to allow the spacecraft to reach the landing site with proper lighting conditions.

First full stack

United Launch Alliance, a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has been under pressure from rival SpaceX for the past few years. While SpaceX has launched more than 90 times this year, ULA’s rockets have flown just three times as the company halts the Atlas V and Delta IV programs.

One Delta IV-Heavy rocket remains in ULA’s inventory. It was supposed to launch next year with a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, the US government’s spy satellite agency. There are 17 Atlas V rockets left to fly.

With Vulcan, ULA is poised to increase its launch rate. Tory Bruno, the company’s chief executive, said ULA has sold 70 Vulcan launches more than half to commercial customers and the rest to the US military. Amazon has booked 38 Vulcan missions to deploy satellites for its Project Kuiper broadband network. The Vulcan was initially fully expendable, but ULA plans to introduce engine recovery and reuse later this decade.

ULA’s goal is to launch an average of two Vulcan rockets per month by the end of 2025. This is an incredibly fast launch cadence just two years after Vulcan’s first flight. For comparison, it took longer for the Atlas V rocket and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 to reach four flights.

Astrobotic's Peregrine lander was recently encapsulated within the payload fairing of the Vulcan rocket.
raising / Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander was recently encapsulated within the payload fairing of the Vulcan rocket.

The Vulcan rocket was originally scheduled to launch in 2019 but has faced repeated delays, mainly due to late deliveries of rocket engines from Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’s space company. ULA bypassed a launch opportunity in May after an upper stage of the Vulcan exploded during a ground test.

Unlike the debuts of most rockets, the Vulcan will launch with a moving payload. Astrobotic’s uncrewed Peregrine Mission One will carry 20 payloads to the lunar surface, including five for NASA through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. This is the first mission to be launched under the CLPS initiative, which was established by NASA in 2018 to procure commercial transportation services to the Moon for scientific instruments and experiments.

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