Inside ULA: Update on Vulcan rocket production

Published: Aug. 5, 2019 at 6:55 PM CDT
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DECATUR, Ala. (WAFF) -Right now, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V is getting ready to launch. It is set for lift-off this Thursday from Cape Canaveral.

The Atlas V will deploy an advanced communications satellite for the U.S. Air Force and Missile Systems Center.

While ULA is laser-focused on the mission at hand in Florida, its leadership also has a keen eye on the future- its new Vulcan Rocket.

At their 1.6 million square foot Decatur facility, there more than 800 workers. Some are coordinating and mapping out where tooling pieces will go to produce the top section of the Vulcan rocket.

The machinery is getting lined up to start the manufacturing process for the Upper Stage.

“This is the first of nine major work cells to build the upper stage tanks for the Vulcan program. We’re installing an automated system that allows us to build the vehicle. The early stages of the tank will go in here to set specific configuration of some of the hardware and then process down through the other major work cells,” explained Zeke Terry, ULA’s Vulcan Production Operations Leader.

While there’s a lot of activity putting the production line together, there’s even more activity on the rocket itself right next door.

The Core Stage is the bottom section of the rocket that holds the new liquid natural gas booster, the fuel to will thrust the massive rocket into space. Technicians are prepping the section for ground testing to make sure it is airworthy.

“They’re instrumenting it to be able to go out into test and check the loads that we’ll put on the vehicle as we go into launch. So they’re installing numerous gauges. Upon completion of those, we’ll take the vehicle over to the on site Dynetics test facility and they’ll push, pull, twist and read the data of how the material reacts to make sure that the loads this will see during launch, that the tank can withstand that with the booster,” Terry said.

ULA leaders say they have to get the entire rocket right. They are using a new powerful Blue Origin BE-4 engine on the core stage so there is a lot riding on the rocket.

“For us, mission success is top. We’re 100% on 133 missions and we believe in that wholeheartedly. Part of that is knowing that when you get ready to launch on launch day, that your customer can have 100% confidence in what you do. That comes through analytics and testing. We have analytics that say this is good. We want to take it to to the next step and complete testing that lets us know that what we have can do what the mission needs,” Terry stated.

Zeke says ULA is on schedule with Vulcan and will be ready to fly payloads in less than two years.

ULA divides their facility into three major areas: sub-assembly, major assemblies and final assemblies.

“We’re completing sub assemblies for first flight right now and we’re about to move into the middle third of the build where we’ll start to assemble the large items like you see here. Then it’ll come into final assembly, what you see in front of us, where we start to mate all of our large pieces together. It’ll really start to look like a rocket. We’ll do our final testing of it and then start to go out the door,” Terry said.

“We have just completed this vehicle and we’re installing the gauges on it. From a ULA standpoint, that is wrapping up right now and first flight is coming in to be able to go through those builds. We’re currently scheduled to ship out next year in the summer time frame for first flight. We’re on schedule,” he added.

ULA pulled from its past to put the rocket together. Much of its new, but there’s a lot that’s heritage hardware.

“It’s a new engine design for us, but we also took a lot of our heritage designs and you can see it in the vehicle. And so we were able to mesh the new design of the engine in with our heritage of Atlas and Delta and really come up with what we believe is an optimal design that gets us to first flight that has a lot of already flight proven elements of the vehicle,” Terry told WAFF.

August 19 was going to be the launch date for a Decatur built rocket to fly to the International Space Station as the first step toward sending U.S. astronauts to the International Space station from U.S. soil, but that date will come and go.

The rocket is ready, but the crew capsule that sits on top, is not. Boeing’s Starliner is still going through testing, even though it will fly without people on this first flight.

The core stage to the Atlas V left Decatur in late May. Any day, the rocket section called the AFT skirt will be shipped to Florida.

ULA leaders say the piece of hardware is ULA’s last commitment for flight. The mission is on hold waiting for the continued testing and approvals on the Boeing crew capsule.

NASA just reorganized it’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, so once those new leaders get their footing, NASA management and its private industry partners will work on new launch dates.

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