United Launch Alliance delays maiden Vulcan Centaur launch

Centaur V being stacked atop the Vulcan first stage in February (Credit United Launch Alliance)

Following the anomaly investigation into the Centaur V upper stage, United Launch Alliance is de-stacking the Vulcan Centaur rocket and shipping the Centaur V upper stage back to Decatur, Alabama.

While the Vulcan Centaur’s first stage performed nominally during the Flight Readiness Firing and met all objectives, United Launch Alliance is doing the right thing and fixing any potential issues on the ground before finding out about them during flight. It is worth noting, the Centaur V upper stage performed as expected during the test firing in which it was fully fueled and pressurized in a flight configuration.

The anomaly investigation found that “Centaur’s thin-walled pressure stabilized tanks require minor reinforcement at the top of the forward dome” and they will also select another Centaur V currently in production at their processing facility to complete qualification testing.

This process will delay the maiden launch of the Vulcan Centaur for quite some time, and there is a high chance that some of those national security payloads could be switched over to the Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy. United Launch Alliance had originally won 60% of the contract, with SpaceX picking up the remaining 40%.

While the Centaur V upper stage is shipped back and reinforcements added, the Vulcan first stage will be removed from the mobile launch platform and lowered into a horizontal position for storage in the Horizontal Integration Facility.

United Launch Alliance’s Gary Wentz said the fix would be “relatively easy,” so there is a chance that Vulcan Centaur could make its maiden launch before the year is out.

The payload for the first launch is Astrobotics Peregrine lunar lander, which is done and ready for shipping to the launch site in Florida. While this launch could still happen this year, it is highly likely that Amazon’s launch of their first two Kuiper internet satellites will be delayed further, creating a bit of a domino effect for payloads assigned to the delayed rocket.

Throughout all of this, rumors abound of United Launch Alliance being shopped around for someone to buy. How much could these issues with the rocket that is supposed to be their primary workhorse for years if not decades to come, affect their potential buyers?

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United Launch Alliance delays maiden Vulcan Centaur launch
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