United Launch Alliance (ULA), a CO-based joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is preparing to conduct the first launch of its new Vulcan rocket, which will serve national security, civil, and commercial customers.

ULA recently announced that it has begun “final processing milestones” in advance of their December 24 liftoff, which will take place at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The rocket will carry two payloads: Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine lunar lander for NASA, and Celestis’ Enterprise Flight memorial spacecraft containing cremated remains.

The flight is the first of two that Vulcan must undergo to receive U.S. Space Force certification. The second is planned for early 2024. The Space Force’s Space Systems Command announced on October 31 that its latest order of national security space launches includes 11 ULA missions, all of which will use Vulcan, as well as 10 SpaceX missions using either Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy.

Vulcan will replace the Atlas and Delta rockets, which ULA has launched more than 150 times since it was formed in 2006. ULA says Vulcan will perform better and cost less than its predecessors.

The new rocket will use two Blue Origin BE-4 engines to power its first stage, and two Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engines for its second stage. It will be available in multiple configurations, including being equipped with up to six Northrop Grumman GEM 63XL solid-propellant rocket boosters to provide additional thrust.

“Vulcan satisfies all challenging orbital requirements essential for U.S. national defense and provides one scalable system for all missions,” ULA president and CEO Tory Bruno said.


U.S. Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman praised the U.S. space industry on November 15 for developing new launch vehicles, as well as smaller, more capable satellites. Such products are giving the Space Force more options to conduct its missions, Saltzman said at an Atlantic Council event in Washington, D.C.

“One of the greatest asymmetric advantages we have in global competition or in international interactions period is the innovative engine that is the U.S. private sector,” Saltzman said. “The ability to innovate, the ability to move fast, the ability to come up with creative solutions — it’s an amazing thing, and we are seeing it play out in the space sector as much as any other sector in the American economy.”


Vulcan’s inaugural launch is not the only space flight milestone slated for December. On December 7 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the U.S. Department of the Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle unmanned spaceplane is scheduled for its seventh launch — and its first on Falcon Heavy.

The mission will include operating the Boeing-built X-37B in “new orbital regimes,” experimenting with “future space domain awareness technologies,” and conducting a radiation experiment for NASA, the Space Force said on November 8. The X-37B completed its sixth mission in November 2022 after almost two and a half years on orbit.

Falcon Heavy is relatively new, having first flown in 2018. SpaceX is developing the super-heavy Starship system, which is designed to carry crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

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Marc Selinger is a journalist based in the Washington, D.C., area. He can be reached at marc2255@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter at @marcselinger.