Kaboom! Vulcan Centaur Test Stand Explosion

On 2023-03-29, during a structural qualification test of United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Centaur V upper stage for the Vulcan Centaur launcher at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, an explosion blew out pieces of the stand and created a large fireball.

Some time after the event, ULA CEO Tory Bruno posted on Twitter,

Most of what you’re seeing is insulation and smaller bits from the test rig. One piece of the hydrogen tank’s dome, about a foot square, ended up a few feet away. The test article is still inside the rig and largely intact, which will significantly help with the investigation

The Vulcan Centaur for the first flight is already stacked at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral with a planned launch date of 2023-05-04. If the cause of the explosion is traced to the Centaur stage the launch may be delayed but if as now seems probable, it was due to a hydrogen leak on the test stand that allowed an explosive mixture of air and hydrogen to accumulate, the launch will probably go ahead as planned.



“Just paint a building number on it and add it to the tourist map.”

United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced the Vulcan Centaur in early 2015, eight years ago. The first launch was planned for July 2021. Prior to today’s announcement, its first flight was planned for “later in 2023”.




During a firing on June 30 at a West Texas facility o[f Jeff Bezos’ space company, a BE-4 engine detonated about 10 seconds into the test, according to several people familiar with the matter. Those people described having seen video of a dramatic explosion that destroyed the engine and heavily damaged the test stand infrastructure.

The people spoke to CNBC on the condition of anonymity to discuss nonpublic matters.

The engine that exploded was expected to finish testing in July. It was then scheduled to ship to Blue Origin’s customer United Launch Alliance for use on ULA’s second Vulcan rocket launch, those people said.

A Blue Origin spokesperson, in a statement to CNBC on Tuesday, confirmed the company “ran into an issue while testing Vulcan’s Flight Engine 3.”

“No personnel were injured and we are currently assessing root cause,” Blue Origin said, adding “we already have proximate cause and are working on remedial actions.”

In a statement to CNBC, a ULA spokesperson said, “The BE-4 testing issue is not expected to impact our plans for the Vulcan Cert-1 mission.” The company noted that the engines for Cert-1 “successfully passed acceptance testing” and are qualified to launch.