Press Release

United Launch Alliance Recognizes Centaur – Pioneering Space Launch for 50 years

By SpaceRef Editor
May 9, 2012
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United Launch Alliance Recognizes Centaur – Pioneering Space Launch for 50 years

Centennial, Colo., (May 9, 2012) – United Launch Alliance (ULA) recognizes the 50th anniversary of the Centaur upper stage, which flew its first test flight on May 8, 1962.

The Centaur rocket was this nation’s first high-energy upper stage launch vehicle. Historically, most rockets burn kerosene fuel, but the Centaur uses an extremely high-performing liquid-hydrogen/liquid-oxygen propellant combination that has since been adopted for several other historic rocket systems. The original Centaur rocket measures 30 feet long and 10 feet in diameter. Fully fueled it weighed more than 35,000 pounds.

“The first Centaur launches in the early 1960’s demonstrated the extremely high performance that can be achieved with a liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen rocket stage,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA’s vice president of Mission Operations. “This technology was critical for the Apollo programs and also for enabling a wide variety of flexible mission designs for Atlas and several other rocket systems.”

The technologies developed and verified on the Centaur have now flown 201 Centaur missions and these technologies were also used for the Saturn I, Saturn V, Space Shuttle, Titan, and Delta programs. Centaur has delivered scientific missions to explore the sun, moon, and every planet in our solar system.

“Centaur’s long and distinguished history is an enabler for the United States to take next steps in space exploration, including human spaceflight to the International Space Station and other destinations, as well as continuing to support our sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines in protecting our national interests throughout the world,” said Sponnick.

The overall Centaur stage architecture is fundamentally the same as the versions flown in the early 60’s – with a thin-walled stainless-steel pressure-stabilized structure that provides the most weight-efficient stage possible. In addition, the Centaur is still powered by an evolved version of the very reliable and proven RL10 engine built by Pratt Whitney Rocketdyne.

“All of the components, subsystems, and overall capabilities have evolved dramatically over the last 50 years,” said Sponnick. “Evolutionary changes over the five-decade history of the Centaur have made for an increasingly flexible and reliable upper stage that has triple the performance capabilities of the first Centaurs developed and flown by rocket pioneers in the early 1960’s.”

As it has through the last 50 years, the Centaur system continues to evolve and improve. ULA engineers are currently developing and qualifying improved versions of the Centaur avionics system, the RL10 engine system, and the pneumatic and ordnance systems used on the Centaur upper stage.

ULA program management, engineering, test, and mission support functions are headquartered in Denver, Colo. Manufacturing, assembly and integration operations are located at Decatur, Ala., and Harlingen, Texas. Launch operations are located at Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla., and Vandenberg AFB, Calif.

For more information on ULA, visit the ULA Web site at, or call the ULA Launch Hotline at 1-877-ULA-4321 (852-4321). Join the conversation at and

SpaceRef staff editor.