The Vulcan rocket lifts off, the first US moon launch in decades

A brand new rocket lifted off early Monday morning from Cape Canaveral, Florida, sending a robotic spacecraft toward the moon’s surface. No American spacecraft has made a soft landing on the Moon since 1972.

For United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the successful launch of the Vulcan Centaur rocket was critical. Vulcan is designed to replace two older rockets, and the US Space Force is also counting on it to launch spy satellites and other spacecraft important to US national security.

The Vulcan is also the first of several new rockets that could make a dent in Elon Musk’s company SpaceX’s current dominance of the space launch market. 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 founded by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.

Throughout the night, the countdown to the Vulcan rocket went smoothly and the weather cooperated.

At 2:18 a.m. Eastern time, the rocket’s engines ignited and lifted off from the launch pad, heading eastward over the Atlantic Ocean.

“Everything looks good,” United Launch Alliance launch commentator Rob Gannon said repeatedly as the Vulcan headed into space.

“Yeah-haw,” said Tory Bruno, the company’s chief executive, after the lunar spacecraft’s deployment. “I’m so excited. I can’t tell you how much.”

United Launch Alliance was founded in 2006 and for seven years was the only company certified by the U.S. government to send national security payloads into orbit. So far it has used two vehicles: the Delta IV, developed by Boeing, which will complete its last flight by the end of the year, and the Atlas V, developed by Lockheed Martin, which is also due for retirement in a few years.

Seventeen Atlas V launches remain, but the rocket uses Russian-built engines, which have become more politically untenable as tensions between Russia and the United States rise. That led ULA to begin development of the Vulcan, which will replace the capabilities of both rockets at a lower cost, United Launch Alliance officials said.

“The unique feature of Vulcan, and what we originally set out to do, was to provide a rocket that had all the capabilities of Atlas and Delta in one system,” said Mark Peller, ULA vice president responsible for Vulcan development. “Because we have this adjustability, its configuration can really be tailored to the specific mission.”

Vulcan can be configured in various ways. Its main 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 burning methane fuel, will also be used on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket.

Up to six solid rocket fuel boosters can be attached to the side of the core to increase the amount of mass it can lift into orbit. Its nose cone comes in two sizes: 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, managing director of Bryce Tech, a consultancy based in Alexandria, Virginia. “And projected demand will likely be sufficient to support multiple launch providers, including Vulcano.”

ULA already has a backlog of more than 70 missions to fly to Vulcan. Amazon has purchased 38 launches 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 approved to launch national security missions. Monday’s launch is the first of two demonstration missions that the Space Force requires to gain confidence in Vulcan before using the launcher for military and surveillance payloads.

The second launch involves lifting Dream Chaser, an uncrewed space plane built by Sierra Space of Louisville, Colorado, on a cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station. This could then be followed by four more Vulcan launches this year for the Space Force.

The primary payload for Vulcan’s first launch was Peregrine, a spacecraft built by Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh. Astrobotic, founded in 2007, is one of several private companies aiming to provide a delivery service to the surface of the Moon. The main customer for this trip is NASA, which paid Astrobotic $108 million to carry out five experiments. This is part of the scientific work the space agency is conducting to prepare for the return of astronauts to the Moon as part of the Artemis program.

Unlike in the past, when NASA built and operated its own spacecraft, this time it is relying on companies like Astrobotic to provide transportation.

A second burn of Vulcan’s second stage engine, lasting about four minutes, sent Peregrine on course for the moon. “It’s a dream,” John Thornton, Astrobotic’s CEO, said on NASA’s television broadcast after the launch. “We are on our way to the moon.”

About 50 minutes after launch, the Astrobotic spacecraft separated from the rocket.

After a two-and-a-half-week Moon cruise, the Peregrine lander will enter orbit around the Moon and circle there until February 23, when it will attempt a landing at Sinus Viscositatis – Latin for “Bay of Stickiness” – an enigmatic region on the far side. neighbor of the Moon.

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-sized containers attached to the Vulcan’s upper stage house small cylindrical capsules.

Among the people whose remains are found on this final journey are Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek; his wife, Majel Barrett, who played Nurse Chapel in the original TV 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 hair samples from three American presidents: George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

A final brief burn of the engine sent the second stage and the Celestis memorial into orbit around the sun.

Celestis, as well as another company providing similar services, Elysium Space of San Francisco, also has a payload on Peregrine. This has prompted an outcry from leaders of the Navajo Nation, who say that many Native Americans consider the moon a sacred place and that they consider sending human remains there a desecration. Navajo officials asked the White House to delay the launch to discuss the issue.

Charles Chafer, CEO of Celestis, said he respects the religious beliefs of all people, but that “I don’t think you can regulate space missions on the basis of religious reasons.”

During press conferences, NASA officials noted that they were not responsible for the mission and had no say in the other payloads Astrobotic sold on the Peregrine. “There is an intergovernmental meeting going on with the Navajo Nation that NASA will support,” Joel Kearns, a NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration, said during a news conference Thursday.

John Thornton, Astrobotic’s chief executive, said Friday that he was disappointed that “this conversation has come so late in the game” because his company announced Celestis and Elysium’s participation years ago.

“We’re really trying to do the right thing,” Thornton said. “I hope we can find a good path forward with the Navajo Nation.”

NASA announced the program to tap private industry for deliveries to the Moon – called Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS for short – in 2018. But it has been slow to take off. After repeated delays, Astrobotic’s Peregrine flight is the first CLPS mission to arrive in space and will arrive first in lunar orbit. But it might not be the first to land.

A second CLPS mission, from Houston-based Intuitive Machines, will launch as early as mid-February and will follow a faster path to the moon, meaning it could reach the surface before Peregrine.

While Vulcan has many payloads to launch in the coming years, its long-term prospects are less clear. Other aerospace companies are looking to acquire some of the Space Force business, and Amazon may move many more Kuiper launches to Bezos’ Blue Origin in the future.

Another factor affecting Vulcan’s future is SpaceX landing and reusing its Falcon 9 boosters, which will likely give it a sizable price advantage over ULA. In contrast, the entire Vulcan rocket is used only once. Blue Origin also plans to reuse the New Glenn boosters.

ULA is developing technology that could be used to recover the booster’s two engines, the most expensive part of the rocket, but it will take years.