Two National Security Space Launch Rockets Moving Forward

United Launch Alliance's Vulcan Centaur rocket, shown here in an artist rendering, has passed its critical design review. ULA illustration via Facebook.

United Launch Alliance this week announced its new Vulcan Centaur rocket passed its critical design review, a system-level vetting that marks the end of the design phase.

“The system CDR was a weeklong detailed review of the entire Vulcan Centaur system with the primary focus to verify all of the elements will work properly together,” ULA said in a May 20 release.

CDR also denotes the start of the Air Force’s formal qualification process the rocket must pass to carry national security payloads into space, and service representatives were on hand during the review.

Vulcan Centaur, which wraps aspects of ULA’s older rockets into a new design, will fly for the first time in 2021. The launch vehicle is expected to compete against offerings from Northrop Grumman, SpaceX, and Blue Origin in the Air Force’s National Security Space Launch program, which is buying an estimated 34 launches for a variety of government payloads between 2021 and 2024.

Northrop is preparing to ground test the first stage of its OmegA rocket May 30, igniting and pressurizing OmegA’s most powerful motor.

“The motor will continue to burn for approximately two minutes, producing more than two million pounds of thrust,” the company said in a May 20 release. “During the test, 30 to 40 technicians and engineers will line the control room, closely monitoring the sensors, instrumentation, and cameras on and around the motor. They will collect approximately 700 data channels, gauging everything from case growth to component stresses to motor pressure to temperatures—all essential data to qualify this motor for flight.”

If all goes according to plan, OmegA will first launch in 2021 as well. The companies are competing to replace a ULA rocket that uses Russian-built RD-180 engines as well as to introduce more commercial vendors and reusable launch vehicles into the DOD’s space programs.

SpaceX is challenging the Air Force’s decision to award development contracts to its competitors in federal court.