In an exciting milestone for the aerospace industry, Northrop Grumman Corporation’s extended length, 63-inch-diameter Graphite Epoxy Motors (GEM 63XL) solid rocket boosters played a crucial role in the inaugural flight of United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan Rocket. This flight also marked the first certification (Cert-1) mission for the Vulcan Rocket.
The GEM 63XL boosters are a remarkable feat of engineering, as they are the longest monolithic, single-cast solid rocket boosters ever manufactured and flown. These boosters delivered an impressive thrust of over 900,000 pounds, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the vehicle’s total thrust at lift-off.
Wendy Williams, Vice President and General Manager of Launch and Missile Defense Systems at Northrop Grumman, highlighted the exceptional propulsion capability of the GEM 63XL boosters. She emphasized that these boosters represent the next step in Northrop Grumman’s legacy of providing best-in-class propulsion technologies with unmatched power and reliability.
The Cert-1 mission carried two payloads. One payload included Astrobotic’s first Peregrine Lunar Lander, Peregrine Mission One, which will deliver science and technology to the lunar surface as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. The second payload was Celestis’ Memorial Spaceflights deep-space Voyager mission.
Development of the GEM 63XL strap-on boosters began in 2015 under a cooperative agreement between Northrop Grumman and ULA to enhance the lift capability of the Vulcan launch vehicle. The motor underwent rigorous testing and was qualified for flight in 2020 through static test firing at Northrop Grumman’s Promontory, Utah, test facilities.
In recognition of their exceptional performance, ULA awarded Northrop Grumman a multi-year contract worth over $2 billion in June 2022. This contract will support increased production of GEM boosters, which will not only benefit ULA but also support Amazon’s Project Kuiper and other ULA customers.
Northrop Grumman has been a trusted supplier of rocket propulsion to ULA and its heritage companies since 1964. The GEM 63XL boosters are an extended length variation of the GEM 63 boosters, which have already supported eight Atlas V launches with 27 boosters.
Additionally, Northrop Grumman’s Commerce facility played a significant role in the Vulcan launch vehicle by manufacturing the hydrazine diaphragm propellant tank. This tank feeds the Centaur upper-stage Reaction Control System, providing crucial guidance and control during the later stages of launch. It is a more powerful successor to the tanks previously supplied by Northrop Grumman for the Atlas V and Delta IV programs.
The successful inaugural flight of ULA’s Vulcan Rocket with Northrop Grumman’s GEM 63XL boosters marks a significant achievement in the advancement of aerospace technology. With their impressive power and reliability, these boosters pave the way for future space exploration missions and propel the industry into new frontiers.