ULA’s first mission with its Vulcan rocket slides to January launch window

ULA’s Vulcan rocket sits at the pad at Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) ahead of the start of a wet dress rehearsal tanking test on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023. Image: ULA

Update: Added additional context from social media posts from Tory Bruno confirming that the launch will move to January.

The debut of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket will slip from late December into early January, according to the company’s president and CEO, Tory Bruno. In a social media post on Sunday, Bruno said the planned Dec. 24 launch date is off the table.

After initially stating that the Christmas Eve launch opportunity was “likely out” on Dec. 10, Bruno later added further context, stating that a launch in 2023 wasn’t really viable.

“The payload is encapsulated, but it will still have to be integrated, followed, testing and vehicle close outs,” Bruno stated on X. “This pushes us past the December window.”

The statements come a couple days after the rocket conducted an initial Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR), where the vehicle was fully fueled and went the countdown was to proceed to the final seconds before cutting off. But Bruno said a “couple of routine ground issues came up near the end” of the test.

Ground teams were targeting a T-0 of 4:30 p.m. EST on Friday. Based on observations of venting during the operation it appeared the countdown reached its final four minutes before an abort occurred. The Vulcan vehicle left the launch pad and returned to the Vertical Integration Facility building at launch complex 41 Saturday afternoon.

“I’d like a full WDR before our first flight, so [Christmas] Eve is likely out,” Bruno said in a Dec. 10 post on X. He added that they are working on schedules but Spaceflight Now understands another test has been scheduled for as soon as Tuesday.

The primary payload onboard is Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, which will journey to the Moon. Had the launch been able to happen during the December launch window (Dec. 24-26), the lander would’ve touched down on the Moon’s surface at approximately 3:30 a.m. EST (0830 UTC) on Jan. 25, 2024.

Bruno said that the next launch window based on Peregrine’s needs opens on Jan. 8, 2024 and would likely last for four days. The team behind the Iris Lunar Rover, one of the payloads onboard Peregrine, said the lander’s next launch window runs from Jan. 8-11.

Dan Hendrickson, Astrobotic’s Vice President of Business Development, told Spaceflight Now back in October that the nominal time from launch to landing is between 30 and 39 days. It was not immediately clear if there is a different transit time for the early January launch window.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander in the clean room at Astrotech in Titusville, Florida. The spacecraft will be the main payload onboard the first launch of ULA’s Vulcan rocket. Image: ULA

Shifting Moon race

With the launch shifting to January, that changes the landscape for Moon-bound missions. Liftoff on Jan. 8 would mean Peregrine would launch just four days before the opening of the launch window for Intuitive Machine’s Nova-C lander onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) is also making its way to the Moon and is set to land around 1520 UTC on Jan. 19.