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Alabama’s ULA submits proposal for Air Force launch competition; Vulcan Centaur rocket on schedule for 2021 first flight

United Launch Alliance (ULA) on Monday announced that the company has submitted its proposal to the U.S. Air Force for the second phase of the national security space launch program known as the ‘Launch Service Procurement’ competition.

This program is heavily supported by Alabama’s aerospace industry and is widely seen as a critical national security initiative that will also end reliance on the Russian RD-180 rocket engine.

ULA was among the three American companies awarded the opportunity to develop launch vehicles for national security space missions under the first phase of the program.

The Air Force nearly one year ago awarded the three Launch Services Agreements for public-private partnerships to develop launch vehicles from this initial stage of the competition.

Now, Phase 2 is the next procurement in the Air Force’s strategy.

The Department of Defense’s selection process was designed to not only ensure a smooth transition to a U.S. engine, but additionally introduce competition, drive down costs and safeguard continued assured access to space by preventing any capability gaps.

For Phase 2, this means cutting down from three companies to two.

On Monday, ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno confirmed that the Vulcan Centaur has officially been submitted as the company’s proposal for this next competition phase.

At ULA’s factory in Decatur, production of the first Vulcan Centaur rocket continues, with shipment to the launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida scheduled for late next year for processing in preparation for its first launch in 2021.

“Atlas and Delta rockets have been the backbone of national security space launch for decades, building on a progressive history of technology development and advancement — Vulcan Centaur will advance this rich heritage,” Bruno said in a statement.

His announcement followed yet another successful launch by a ULA Atlas V rocket for the Air Force last week. This rocket was also assembled at ULA’s Decatur manufacturing plant, which — at 1.6 million square feet — is the largest such facility in the western hemisphere.

“Following the successful launch of our 134th mission just last week on our Atlas rocket, we submitted our purpose-built Vulcan Centaur rocket for the U.S. Air Force’s Phase 2 Launch Services competition,” Bruno added. “It is so exciting to see the first flight vehicle coming together at our factory.”

‘Flight proven design’

ULA has an annual economic impact to Alabama of approximately $285 million.

However, Bruno has previously told Yellowhammer News that the Phase 1 award, under the Launch Services Agreement, is elevating the importance of ULA’s Yellowhammer State operation even higher.

“It’s a big shot in the arm, an increase in our confidence to know that we’re developing the right rocket that the national security community and the Air Force want to carry out the mission,” Bruno outlined. “They tell us that unambiguously when they make the award to us. And so we have plowed ahead. We have invested heavily in the Decatur factory bringing it all up to state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques.”

The Vulcan Centaur rocket will afford Alabamians the opportunity to leave an indelible mark on America’s national security effort for years to come.

“Vulcan is really purpose-built for that set of missions that are going to be needed for national security space in the future,” Bruno explained.

He added that Vulcan represents a “giant leap up in performance.”

It should be noted that as part of its strategy to lower risk and increase chances of success on its first flight in 2021, the company has already started bringing major parts of Vulcan into its Atlas program.

Vulcan’s payload faring, solid rocket boosters, avionics and computer systems will all fly on Atlas, first. Only the Blue Origin BE-4 engines will be new when Vulcan launches.

“When Vulcan flies for the first time, it’s not really flying for the first time,” Bruno advised.

On Monday, Bruno said this proven performance will pay off in a big way for the country.

“The nation is facing a contested space environment, and we are unleashing the energy of American ingenuity by developing Vulcan Centaur to meet our nation’s need for expanding space missions,” Bruno emphasized. “Vulcan Centaur’s flight-proven design, coupled with innovative technology, is transforming the future of space launch and will advance America’s superiority in space.”

ULA is the nation’s only full-range national security space launch provider and is the most experienced, with 100% mission success on its now-134 launches.

“Vulcan Centaur will provide higher performance and greater affordability while continuing to deliver our unmatched reliability and orbital accuracy precision from our treasured cryogenic Centaur upper stage,” Bruno commented.

Additionally, ULA and the heritage companies are the nation’s only firms who have ever flown the Category C heavy-class national security missions, thus providing the country with the highest possible confidence of continued low-risk mission performance.

“ULA is the best partner for national security space launch, and we are the only provider to demonstrate experience flying to all orbits including the most challenging heavy-class missions, providing the bedrock foundation for the lowest risk portfolio of two launch service providers for the U.S. Air Force,” Bruno concluded.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn