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Alabama’s ULA readies launch pad for next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket

United Launch Alliance (ULA) has completed another step toward the inaugural launch of the Vulcan Centaur rocket later this year. ULA has modified its launch pad and facilities in Cape Canaveral, Florida, to accommodate the next-generation rocket built at the company’s world-class facility in Decatur.

Completing this phase of preparation moves Vulcan Centaur even closer to a planned 2021 lunar mission.

“Reaching this major milestone required years of hard work and dedication by the entire team to ensure we completed the massive amount of work needed to get the launch pad and facilities ready for a Vulcan Centaur launch,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO, in a release from the company. “I am so proud of the team and we are very excited as we count down to Vulcan Centaur’s first flight carrying an extremely cool mission to the moon for our customer Astrobotic.”

Bruno has previously highlighted the unique role Vulcan Centaur will fill as part of the United States’ effort in space.

“Vulcan Centaur is purpose built to meet all of the requirements of our nation’s space launch needs and its flight-proven design will transform the future of space launch and advance America’s superiority in space,” he outlined.

The company says Vulcan Centaur will provide higher performance and greater affordability, and part of that is through the use of new manufacturing technologies that were not available during the production of earlier generations of rockets.

ULA has invested heavily in its Decatur plant, the largest such facility in the western hemisphere, installing a total of six large robotic welders to support the upgraded Centaur upper stage.

In 2020, ULA’s Vulcan Centaur was competitively selected by the U.S. Space Force as the best value launch provider for 60% of the launches occurring through 2027.

ULA will power this year’s lunar mission on behalf of Astrobotic, the world leader in commercial delivery to the moon. Astrobotic was selected by NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program to deliver up to 14 NASA payloads to the moon on its Peregrine lunar lander.

At the time of award, Bruno emphasized the historic nature of a flight made possible by a “Made in Alabama” rocket.

“Our rockets have carried exploration missions to the moon, the sun and every planet in the solar system so it is only fitting that Vulcan Centaur’s inaugural flight will lead the return of Americans to the lunar surface,” he said.

RELATED: Alabama’s ULA completes another successful launch for National Reconnaissance Office

Several modifications were made at Space Launch Complex-41 to accommodate both Vulcan Centaur and Atlas V rockets.

Changes were made to the Vertical Integration Facility, where rockets are stacked and tested prior to rollout, and a new mobile launch platform was built for Vulcan Centaur. The Vulcan Launch Platform, which stands 183 feet tall and weighs 1.3 million pounds, successfully completed its first trip to the launch pad and will remain there for additional testing.

“These modifications were challenging as we needed to complete all of the work at the pad without impacting our customers’ flying Atlas V missions,” said Mark Peller, Vulcan program manager. “We were able to complete this critical work with no impact to our Atlas manifest. To our knowledge, ULA has the first dual-use facilities and launch pad capable of supporting two different launch vehicles, while providing greater flexibility leading up to the first Vulcan Centaur launch and a smooth transition from Atlas to Vulcan Centaur afterward.”

Learn about the journey a ULA rocket takes from Alabama to Cape Canaveral:

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia