Space Commerce

50th Anniversary of the Launch of Centaur

By Keith Cowing
November 27, 2013
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50th Anniversary of the Launch of Centaur
Centaur Stage During Wind Tunnel Testing

United Launch Alliance (ULA) celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first successful launch of the Centaur upper stage during the Ohio Aerospace Institute event on Nov. 22. Centaur was recognized as the hallmark of innovative design and engineering excellence.
“By harnessing the power of liquid hydrogen to launch payloads to space, both near and far, the Centaur is the benchmark by which all other are measured,” said Matt Smith, ULA’s vice president of Engineering and Information Technology.

General Dynamics and NASA partnered to develop Centaur in the height of the space race. The first Centaur launches in the early 1960s demonstrated extremely high performance that can be achieved with a liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen rocket stage and provided the energy needed to propel larger missions to the moon and beyond.

Using an innovative approach, the team designed a tank with propellant compartments separated by a double walled bulkhead which also serves as a heat barrier to reduce the boil off of the much colder liquid hydrogen. Although Centaur has always flown on Atlas rockets, Centaur variants were subsequently used for the Saturn I, Saturn V, Space Shuttle, Titan, and Delta programs.

“Centaur celebrated its 200th flight in 2012 and has sent spacecraft to nearly every planet in our solar system, as well as delivering vital commercial and national security payloads,” said Smith. “Fifty years today after its first successful launch, Centaur continues to deliver the highest mass fraction of any cryogenic upper stage, as well as meet customer requirements for reduced cost and enhanced capabilities.”

In 2012, ULA, in partnership with the National Reconnaissance Office, developed the aft bulkhead carrier to launch auxiliary payloads mounted to the Centaur. These rideshare missions provide lower cost launch opportunities for customers with smaller payloads.

ULA is currently developing the next generation of Centaur, the Advanced Common Evolved Stage (ACES) to support multiple objectives, including 50 percent payload growth.

“ACES will enable unparalleled mission flexibility and incorporate the Integrated Vehicle Fluids, or IVF system, stretching mission capability from hours to weeks,” said Dr. George Sowers, ULA’s vice president of Strategic Architecture. “This replaces the existing hydrazine, helium and battery systems.”

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.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.