Certification for United Launch Alliance' (ULA) Vulcan launch vehicle for National Security Space (NSS) missions continues unabated, as the company has now signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with the USAF's Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) as part of the company’s effort to certify its new Vulcan launch vehicle for such use.
This cooperative, jointly-written agreement facilitates data exchanges and protects proprietary and export-controlled data. The CRADA will be in effect until all non-recurring design validation activities for Vulcan are complete. This CRADA enables the Air Force to evaluate the Vulcan launch system according to the Air Force’s New Entrant Certification Guide (NECG) and contains a detailed Certification Plan that specifies all of the non-recurring activities.
As part of the evaluation, SMC and ULA will look at flight history, vehicle design, reliability, process maturity, safety systems, manufacturing and operations, systems engineering, risk management and launch facilities. SMC will monitor at least two certification flights to meet the flight history requirements outlined in the NECG.
ULA will give the US Government specific levels of insight into the design and testing of the vehicle during its development; the breadth and depth of this insight allows for the number of certification flights to be two. Once portions of the non-recurring validation are complete, the SMC commander may make a determination to grant certification. This approach is consistent with other CRADAs. While certification does not guarantee a contract award, it does enable a company to be awarded competitive launch services contracts.
In addition to the Vulcan CRADA, SMC anticipates entering into additional CRADAs with SpaceX for their Falcon Heavy rocket and with Orbital-ATK for their Next Generation Launcher. Currently, ULA’s Delta IV and Atlas V, and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Upgrade are the only certified launch vehicles for sending NSS payloads into orbit. Having multiple certified launch vehicle providers and multiple families of launch systems bolsters US assured access to space.
According to Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the Air Force program executive officer for Space and Space and Missile Systems Center commander, the certification process provides a path for launch-service providers to demonstrate the capability to design, produce, qualify, and deliver a new launch system and provide the mission assurance support required to deliver NSS satellites to orbit. This process ensures that the US will continue to have assured access to space.