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3 new rockets are on track for 1st test flights in 2021

By Hanneke Weitering
April 16, 2019, 10:46:34 AM EDT

Three new commercial rockets are on track to make their first test flights in 2021. But they may not all make it to the launch pad, depending on who wins a competition for a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense.

The U.S. Air Force is about to decide which two companies will receive contracts to launch 25 military satellites between 2022 and 2026. In the running are Northrop Grumman's OmegA rocket, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket and Blue Origin's reusable New Glenn heavy-lift rocket. SpaceX is also eligible for the award, even though that company did not receive a Launch Service Agreement (LSA) award along with the other three contestants in October. If SpaceX wins, it would use its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets to launch the national security missions.

"We are very confident that we will be flying in 2021," ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno said about the company's Vulcan rocket in a news conference here at the 35th Space Symposium on Monday (April 8). That same day, Northrop Grumman Vice President for Strategic Programs (and former NASA astronaut) Kent Rominger said that progress on the OmegA rocket has exceeded the company's expectations. Blue Origin did not provide any updates on New Glenn at Space Symposium, but the company has already expressed some confidence in its timeline by signing contracts to launch commercial satellites starting in 2021.


An artist's rendering of the Vulcan Centaur rocket, the United Launch Alliance's next-generation launch vehicle that is expected to launch on its first test flight in 2021. (Image: © United Launch Alliance)

Blue Origin's New Glenn is a reusable heavy-lift rocket that is designed to make upright landings, much like SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets. In January, Blue Origin revealed a new digital mock-up of the company's newly redesigned New Glenn rocket. The two-stage rocket stands 270 feet (82 m) tall and is powered by seven BE-4 engines.

The Vulcan's first test flight is currently slated for April 2021. Until then, ULA plans to test some technology for the company's new Vulcan rocket by flying that tech on the Atlas V, a reliable rocket that ULA has been launching since 2002, Bruno said. So, the Vulcan would have flight-proven hardware even on its first test flight. Two BE-4 rocket enginesprovided by Blue Origin will power the rocket's first-stage booster, and the Vulcan's upgraded Centaur upper stage will use RL10 cryogenic engines built by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

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