By Kenneth Chang
A brand-new rocket lifted off early Monday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, sending multiple payloads on journeys into space.
Hours after the debut of the Vulcan rocket, a moon lander it carried built by a private company faced malfunctions that imperiled its mission. That did not diminish the launch itself, which was flawless and set up future missions of the vehicle, which was built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Tory Bruno, CEO of ULA, summed it up tersely in a post on the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter.
“Launched on the open of the window. Perfectly nominal mission. Dead on bullseye orbital insertion,” he wrote.
For ULA, the successful launch of the Vulcan Centaur rocket was crucial. Vulcan is designed to replace two older rockets, and the U.S. Space Force is also counting on it to launch spy satellites and other spacecraft that are important for U.S. national security.
The Vulcan is also the first of several new rockets that could chip away at the current domination of the space launch market by Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX. SpaceX sent nearly 100 rockets into orbit last year. Other debut orbital launches in the coming months could include the Ariane 6 rocket from Arianespace, a European company, and New Glenn from Blue Origin, the company started by Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder.
Through the night, the countdown for the Vulcan rocket proceeded smoothly, and the weather cooperated.
At 2:18 a.m. Eastern time, the rocket’s engines ignited and lifted off from the launchpad, heading up and east over the Atlantic Ocean.
“Everything looking good,” Rob Gannon, launch commentator at United Launch Alliance, said repeatedly as the Vulcan headed to space.
“Yee-haw,” Bruno said after the deployment of the lunar spacecraft. “I am so thrilled. I can’t tell you how much.”
United Launch Alliance was formed in 2006, and for nine years it was the only company certified by the U.S. government to send national security payloads into orbit. Until now, it has used two vehicles: the Delta IV, developed by Boeing, which will complete its final flight later this year, and the Atlas V, developed by Lockheed Martin, which is also to retire in a few years.
Seventeen Atlas V launches remain, but the rocket uses Russian-built engines, which became more politically untenable with the rise of tensions between Russia and the United States. That led ULA to begin development of the Vulcan, which replaces the capabilities of both rockets at a lower cost, United Launch Alliance officials said.
“What’s unique about Vulcan, and what we originally set out to do, was to provide a rocket that has all the capabilities of Atlas and Delta in one single system,” said Mark Peller, the ULA vice president in charge of Vulcan’s development. “Because we do have that adjustability, its configuration can be really tailored to the specific mission.”
Vulcan can be configured in a variety of ways. Its core booster stage, the main body of the rocket, is powered by two BE-4 engines manufactured by Blue Origin. The engines, which emit deep blue flames from the burning of methane fuel, will also be used on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket.
Up to six solid rocket fuel boosters can be strapped to the core’s side to increase the amount of mass it can lift into orbit. Its nose cone comes in two dimensions — a standard size of 51 feet in length and a longer one, 70 feet, for larger payloads.
“The launch market is more robust than it has been in decades,” said Carissa Christensen, chief executive of Bryce Tech, a consulting company in Alexandria, Virginia. “And anticipated demand is likely to be sufficient to support multiple launch providers, including Vulcan.”
ULA already has a backlog of more than 70 missions to fly on Vulcan. Amazon bought 38 launches for deployment for Project Kuiper, a constellation of communications satellites that will compete with SpaceX’s Starlink network to provide high-speed satellite internet.
Many of the other launches will be for the Space Force. ULA and SpaceX are currently the only companies that are approved for launching national security missions. Monday’s launch is the first of two demonstration missions that the Space Force is requiring to gain confidence in Vulcan before it uses the launcher for military and surveillance payloads.
The second launch is to lift Dream Chaser, an uncrewed space plane built by Sierra Space of Louisville, Colorado, on a cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station. That could then be followed by four additional Vulcan launches this year for the Space Force.
The main payload for the first launch of Vulcan was Peregrine, Astrobotic’s lunar lander. Astrobotic, founded in 2007, is one of several private companies aiming to provide a delivery service to the surface of the moon. Its primary customer for this trip is NASA, which paid Astrobotic $108 million to carry five experiments. No American spacecraft has made a soft landing on the moon since 1972.
That is part of the scientific work the space agency is conducting to prepare for the return of the astronauts to the moon under the Artemis program. Unlike in the past, when NASA built and operated its own spacecraft, this time it is relying on companies such as Astrobotic to provide the transportation.
That spacecraft probably will no longer be able to attempt a moon landing. But Vulcan also lifted a secondary payload for Celestis, a company that memorializes people by sending some of their ashes or DNA into space. Two toolbox-size containers attached to the Vulcan’s upper stage house 268 small cylindrical capsules.
Among the people whose remains are on this final journey are Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek; his wife, Majel Barrett, who played Nurse Chapel on the original television show; and three other actors on the show: DeForest Kelley, who played medical officer Leonard “Bones” McCoy; Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, the communications officer; and James Doohan, who played Montgomery Scott, the chief engineer.
One of the capsules contains samples of hair from three American presidents: George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
A final brief engine firing sent the second stage and the Celestis memorial into orbit around the sun.
While Vulcan has many payloads to launch over the next few years, its longer-term prospects are less clear. Other aerospace companies are looking to win some of the Space Force business, and Amazon could in the future shift many more of its Kuiper launches to Bezos’ Blue Origin.
Another factor affecting Vulcan’s future is that SpaceX lands and reuses its Falcon 9 boosters, which is likely to give it a sizable price advantage over ULA. By contrast, the whole Vulcan rocket is used just once. Blue Origin is also planning to reuse the New Glenn boosters.
ULA is developing technology that could be used to recover the two engines in the booster, the most expensive part of the rocket, but that is years away.