A brand new rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Monday morning, sending a robotic spacecraft toward the lunar 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 significant. Vulcan is designed to replace two aging rockets, and the United States Space Force is also relying on it to launch spy satellites and other spacecraft that are critical to US national security.
The Vulcan is the first of several new rockets that could end Elon Musk’s company SpaceX’s current dominance of the space launch market. SpaceX sent nearly 100 rockets into orbit last year. Other first orbital launches in the coming months could include European company Arianespace’s Ariane 6 rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn, the company started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Throughout the night, the Vulcan rocket countdown went smoothly and the weather cooperated.
At 2:18 a.m. Eastern Time, the rocket’s engines ignited and lifted off from the launchpad over the Atlantic Ocean and headed east.
“Everything looks good,” launch commentator Rob Gannon of United Launch Alliance said repeatedly as Vulcan headed into space.
“Yeh-haw,” company Chief Executive Tory Bruno said after the deployment of the lunar spacecraft. “I am very excited. I can’t tell you how much.”
United Launch Alliance was formed in 2006, and for seven years it was the only company certified by the United States 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 final flight later this year, and the Atlas V developed by Lockheed Martin, which is also scheduled to be retired in a few years.
Seventeen Atlas V launches remain, but the rocket uses Russian-made engines, which has become more politically volatile as tensions rise between Russia and the United States. United Launch Alliance officials said this led ULA to begin development of the Vulcan, which replaces the capabilities of both rockets at a lower cost.
Mark Peller, ULA vice president in charge of Vulcan development, said, “What’s unique about Vulcan, and what we originally aimed to do, was to provide a rocket that had all the capabilities of Atlas and Delta in a single system. Be in.” “Because we have that adjustability, its configuration can really be tailored to the specific mission.”
Vulkan can be configured in a variety of ways. Its main booster stage, the main part of the rocket, is powered by two BE-4 engines manufactured by Blue Origin. The engines, which emit deep blue flames as they burn methane fuel, will also be used on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket.
Six solid rocket fuel boosters can be strapped to the side of the core to increase the amount of mass it can lift into orbit. Its nose cone comes in two dimensions – a standard size at 51 feet in length, and a taller, 70 feet for larger payloads.
“The launch market is stronger than it has been in decades,” said Carissa Christensen, chief executive of Bryce Tech, a consulting company in Alexandria, VA. 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 purchased 38 launches to deploy Project Kuiper, a constellation of communications satellites that will compete with SpaceX’s Starlink network to provide high-speed satellite internet.
Many 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 the Space Force needs to gain confidence in Vulcan before using the launcher for military and surveillance payloads.
The second launch is to lift the Dream Chaser, an unmanned space plane built by Sierra Space of Louisville, Colorado, on a cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station. After this, four additional Vulcans can be launched for the Space Force this year.
The main 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 delivery service on the lunar surface. Its primary customer for this trip is NASA, which paid Astrobotic $108 million for five experiments. It is part of the scientific work that the space agency is conducting to prepare for the return of 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 like Astrobotic to provide transportation.
With Vulcan’s second stage engine burning for about four minutes, Peregrine set off on its way to the Moon. “It’s a dream,” John Thornton, Astrobotic’s chief executive, said on a NASA television broadcast after the launch. “We’re headed to the moon.”
The Astrobotic spacecraft separated from the rocket approximately 50 minutes after launch.
After traveling to the Moon for two and a half weeks, the Peregrine lander will enter orbit around the Moon and remain there until February 23, when it will attempt a landing in Sinus Viscositatis – Latin for “bay of stickiness”. Mysterious region near the Moon.
Vulcan also carried 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 Vulcan’s upper stage contain small cylindrical capsules.
Among those whose remains are on this final journey are Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry; his wife, Majel Barrett, who played Nurse Chappelle in the original television show; and three other actors on the show: DeForest Kelley, who played medical officer Leonard “Bones” McCoy; Nichelle Nichols, who played communications officer Uhura; and James Doohan, who played Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott.
One of the capsules contains hair samples from three US presidents: George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
A final brief engine firing sent the second stage and the Celestis rocket into orbit around the Sun.
Celestis, as well as another company that provides similar services, San Francisco’s Elysium Space, also has a payload on Peregrine. This has prompted opposition from leaders of the Navajo Nation, who say many Native Americans consider the Moon a sacred place, and they consider sending human remains there a sacrilege. Navajo officials asked that the White House delay the launch to discuss the matter.
Charles Chaffer, chief executive of Celestis, said he respected all people’s religious beliefs, but “I don’t think you can regulate space missions based on religious reasons.”
During news conferences, NASA officials said they were not in charge of the mission and had no direct authority over other payloads sold by Astrobotic on Peregrine. “An intergovernmental meeting is being conducted with the Navajo Nation that NASA will support,” Joel Kearns, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration, said during a news conference Thursday.
Astrobotic Chief Executive John Thornton said Friday he was disappointed that “this conversation came up so late in the game,” because his company had announced Celestis and Elysium’s involvement years ago.
“We’re really trying to do the right thing,” Mr. Thornton said. “I am hopeful that we can find a good way forward with the Navajo Nation.”
NASA in 2018 announced a program to tap private industry for deliveries to the Moon – called Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS for short. But it has been slow to get off the ground. After repeated delays, Astrobotic’s Peregrine flight is the first CLPS mission to space, and it will be the first to reach lunar orbit. But it may not be the first one to land.
The second CLPS mission, by Houston’s Intuitive Machines, is scheduled to launch in mid-February and will take a faster path to the moon, meaning it could reach the surface before Peregrine.
While Vulcan has several payloads slated to launch over the next few years, its long-term prospects are less clear. Other aerospace companies are looking to win some of the Space Force business, and Amazon could shift many of its Kuiper launches to Mr. Bezos’ Blue Origin in the future.
Another factor influencing Vulcan’s future is that SpaceX strips its Falcon 9 boosters and reuses them, which is likely to give it a huge price advantage over ULA, unlike if the entire Vulcan rocket were used. Is done only once. Blue Origin also plans to reuse the New Glenn booster.
ULA is developing technology that could be used to recover the two engines in the booster, the most expensive part of the rocket, but this will take several years.