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An artist’s conception shows United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket lifting off. (ULA Illustration)

United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket – and Blue Origin’s next-generation BE-4 rocket engine – have been chosen to send Astrobotic’s Peregrine moon lander as well as Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser mini-shuttle to the final frontier in 2021.

Neither of the past week’s announcements is all that surprising, because Astrobotic and SNC both had previous agreements to use ULA’s current-generation Atlas 5 rocket. But both announcements underscore the importance of holding to the current schedule for rolling out the BE-4 as well as the Vulcan, which is designed to use two BE-4 engines on its first-stage booster.

Blue Origin, the privately held space venture founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is thought to be in the final stages of testing the BE-4’s performance – not only for ULA’s Vulcan but also for its own orbital-class New Glenn rocket, which is also due for its maiden flight in 2021.

Although Blue Origin is headquartered south of Seattle in Kent, Wash., the engine tests are taking place at the company’s facility in West Texas. The BE-4 is designed to use liquefied natural gas as fuel and achieve maximum thrust of 550,000 pounds.

Earlier this month, Bezos touted a full-power engine firing in Texas.

Once the BE-4 passes its qualification tests, engine production will shift from Kent to a factory that’s currently under construction in Huntsville, Ala. Vulcan rockets will be assembled nearby at ULA’s factory in Decatur, Ala. The Vulcan launch system would make use of ULA’s Centaur upper stage.

Astrobotic's Peregrine lander
An artist’s conception shows Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander on the lunar surface. (Astrobotic Illustration)

In a news release, ULA CEO Tory Bruno said the Astrobotic moon mission would mark Vulcan’s first launch. It would take place at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and serve as the first of two certification flights required by the U.S. Air Force for national security missions.

“Our rockets have carried exploration missions to the moon, the sun and every planet in the solar system, so it is only fitting that Vulcan Centaur’s inaugural flight will lead the return of Americans to the lunar surface,” Bruno said today. “We could not be more excited to fly this mission for Astrobotic.”

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic was selected to deliver up to 14 NASA payloads to the lunar surface in 2021, under the terms of a $79.5 million award from NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

The company says it has agreements to fly more than two dozen payloads for 16 customers on its first moon mission – and has a “healthy payload pipeline” for follow-up missions.

Astrobotic’s most recently published timeline calls for launch in June 2021, with the lunar landing planned for the following month.

Sierra Nevada Corp. is also counting on a 2021 maiden launch for its Dream Chaser, a winged space plane that looks like a scaled-down version of NASA’s now-retired space shuttle. ULA plans to launch the Dream Chaser on the second Vulcan mission.

In a news release, SNC CEO Fatih Ozmen noted that the Dream Chaser can be sent into space by a wide variety of rockets, “so we had great options.”

“SNC selected ULA because of our strong collaboration on the Dream Chaser program, their proven safety record and on-time performance,” Ozmen said. “This is bringing America’s space plane and America’s rocket together for best-of-breed innovation and exploration.”

NASA selected SNC and the Dream Chaser to deliver more than 12,000 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station during six uncrewed flights, launched from Cape Canaveral. At the end of each mission, the Dream Chaser would carry payloads back to Earth and make a shuttle-like landing at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility.

A prototype Dream Chaser, designed solely for atmospheric flight, conducted a successful glide and test landing in 2017. Since then, SNC has been working on the spaceworthy version of the craft at facilities in Colorado and elsewhere.

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