ULA is gearing up to load fuel into its Vulcan rocket for the first time

ULA (United Launch Alliance) is aiming over the next couple of weeks to begin loading cryogenic fuels aboard its massive Vulcan rocket. The rocket uses cryogenic methane and liquid oxygen as propellants. The test is critical for developing the next-generation rocket between flights of Atlas 5 rockets that will share the same launch complex in the coming years. Currently, ULA is using pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

ULA's primary rocket is currently the Atlas 5, which is fully operational. The Vulcan Centaur rocket is more powerful and uses a quartet of BE-4 first-stage engines supplied by Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. ULA expects that the first Vulcan rocket will be ready to launch by the end of 2021. That timeframe was given by ULA chief operating officer John Elbon in early May.

However, Colonel Robert Bongiovi, director of the launch enterprise division at the US Space Force Space and Missile Systems Center, said this week that the first Vulcan launch could occur late this year or in early 2022. Vulcan is an important rocket for the Space Force as it will be the largest customer for the ULA rocket.

Currently, Vulcan is set to launch a pair of certification flights before handling its first mission for the US military. That mission is known as USSF-106 and is currently scheduled to launch in early 2023. Until Vulcan is ready, the Atlas 5 continues to be used by the US military. A launch is scheduled for next Tuesday with a military satellite aboard.

That Atlas 5 will test an upgraded version of the RL10 upper stage engine that will be used on the Centaur upper stage of the Vulcan rocket. Another launch is scheduled for June with that Atlas 5 using a payload shroud similar to what will be used on the Vulcan rocket that was constructed in the US.