WASHINGTON — The United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket successfully completed its debut launch, continuing the vehicle’s path toward certification to fly national security missions later this year.

The rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in the early morning hours of Jan. 8, carrying a lunar lander called Peregrine, developed by Astrobotic Technology. The lander is flying 20 payloads, including five for NASA.

“Vulcan’s inaugural launch ushers in a new, innovative capability to meet the ever-growing requirements of space launch,” ULA CEO Tory Bruno said in a statement.

The Denver-based company, along with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is one of two firms with launch vehicles certified to fly space missions for the U.S. Defense Department and the intelligence community. In 2020, the Space Force chose ULA to conduct 60% of its launches between fiscal 2022 and 2027 and SpaceX to fly the remaining 40%.

Once Vulcan is certified, it will replace the company’s Atlas V and Delta IV rockets.

That is slated to occur this spring following Vulcan’s second certification flight. The rocket will carry its first military mission this summer — an experimental navigation satellite for the Air Force Research Laboratory — and is scheduled to fly another three national security missions before the end of the year.

Mark Peller, ULA’s vice president of Vulcan development, told reporters in a Jan. 5 briefing that this week’s launch is the “final step” in the rocket’s development. Vulcan’s test program included more than 150 individual component tests and dozens of major system tests, he said.

While the rocket’s first two flights are critical to demonstrate the Vulcan’s performance and achieve certification, Peller said that process started long before the vehicle was ready to launch.

“The U.S. Space Force has partnered with us through development and has had full insight into design, development and all the other validation tests,” he said.

Following Vulcan’s first flight, ULA will spend the next two months reviewing data and observations from the launch. If the rocket performed as expected, the company will proceed toward its second mission in the April timeframe, launching NASA’s Dream Chaser spaceplane.

ULA produces Vulcan at its Decatur, Ala. facility. The country is on contract for more than 70 Vulcan launches with a variety of customers across the civil, commercial and national security markets.

The company is poised to conduct 16 launches this year, six of those on Vulcan. Its cadence is set to increase to 28 launches in 2025.

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.

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