ULA Introduces Its New Vulcan Rocket That "Changes Everything"

ULA Introduces Its New Vulcan Rocket That "Changes Everything"

In a breathless exposition of the attributes of his company’s new rocket, United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Tory Bruno promised it “changes everything” about space launch and the future use of space.

Bruno announced the rocket’s name, Vulcan, and details about it and the company’s new business strategy at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, CO today.  The name was chosen by over one million participants in a ULA naming contest.  Zeus and GalaxyOne were runners-up.

Bruno laid out a four step plan.  First, ULA will introduce the new Vulcan rocket in 2019.  It basically will be an Atlas V rocket with a Centaur upper stage, but instead of a single Russian RD-180 engine, it will use two Blue Origin BE-4’s.  It will have 20 percent more lift capability than the Atlas V and be less expensive.

Second, ULA will introduce a new upper stage to replace Centaur in 2023.  The Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) is what will change everything about utilization of space, Bruno said.

Third, ULA will introduce reusability by recovering the Vulcan’s first stage engines.  Instead of trying to recover the entire first stage – as SpaceX is doing with Falcon – ULA will separate the engines from the booster after they have completed their task of sending a payload into space.  Using a hypersonic decelerator, the engines will return Earthward where they will be scooped out of mid-air by helicopters, thereby avoiding immersion in sea water.

The fourth step introduces an era of “distributed lift” in 2024 where various elements of a space facility will be sent into orbit by Vulcan rockets separately and assembled in orbit using the ACES upper stage, which can be restarted many times and move objects from one location to another.  Bruno envisions fuel depots, water depots, and commercial human habitats and the overall commercial utilization of space benefiting from this capability.

ULA’s dramatic plans are stimulated by equally dramatic changes in the U.S. launch services market over the past year.

ULA was created in 2006 by the Air Force, Boeing and Lockheed Martin when the market for launch services was insufficient to support both companies’ rockets –  Delta IV and Atlas V, respectively – but the Air Force wanted to be able to use both of them to ensure its national security satellites could be launched whenever needed.

The ULA launches are very expensive, however, and the Atlas V uses Russian RD-180 engines.   Competition from SpaceX and the deterioration in the U.S.-Russian relationship because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine have changed the landscape.  Congress has made clear that it does not want U.S. national security satellite launches to be dependent on a foreign supplier, and they want the Air Force to embrace competition from “new entrants” like Space X.

The FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act requires the Secretary of Defense to stop using RD-180s for national security launches by 2019, although waivers are possible under certain circumstances.   Bruno reiterated today that the initial version of Vulcan will be ready by 2019, but added that it would be used for commercial launches in the beginning.  He does not anticipate launching for the Air Force until 2022-2023, after the rocket is certified.  The Air Force is asking Congress to amend the law to give it more time to transition from Atlas V with its RD-180s to the new ULA rocket.

Meanwhile, SpaceX expects to be certified to compete with ULA for national security launches this summer.

These events have spurred ULA to rethink its future and Bruno was brought in as President last August.  Today was the unveiling of ULA’s new strategy and new rocket.

ULA’s primary plan is to use two liquid oxygen (LOX)/methane BE-4 engines built by Blue Origin to replace the single RD-180 used in an Atlas V today.   The company has a backup plan with Aerojet Rocketdyne for a traditional LOX-kerosene engine (AR1) in case the BE-4 development encounters problems.  ULA will decide between the two in 12-18 months, Bruno said.

Perhaps the most visionary aspects of ULA’s plans are reusing the Vulcan first stage engines and its plans for the ACES upper stage.

After separating from the first stage, the engines would use an “advanced hypersonic decelerator heat shield” to return towards Earth where they would be snatched out of mid-air by a helicopter and returned to the ULA factory where they would ”plop” into the next booster in line for launch.  Bruno said it would result in a 90 percent reduction in booster propulsion cost.

But it is the ACES upper stage that is the “game changer.”  A ULA graphic used at today’s briefing exclaims “Orbital Capabilities Unleashing Mankind’s Potential in Space.” Bruno listed asteroid mining, building infrastructure for “real and permanent human presence,” including fuel depots, water depots, and commercial human habitats, as examples of what ACES will enable by reusing the cryogenic upper stage’s leftover liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen so it can remain in orbit for weeks, avoiding the “boil off” that limits the lifetime of cryogenic upper stages now.  The ACES Integrated Vehicle Fluids System will utilize the liquid hydrogen and oxygen to repressurize the fuel tanks, generate electrical power, and provide control thrust and attitude thrust.  ULA is working with the Rousch race car company on the advanced internal combustion engine that makes it all possible, so it is “the formula race car of space,” Bruno quipped.

With that capability, “We can do anything you can imagine,” he promised.

Bruno also offered “one teaser” – ULA plans something called “FastBuy ReadyLaunch” that will “revolutionize” the way launch services are purchased.  He said the company would provide details about it this summer.

Bruno declined to say how much Vulcan or ACES will cost.   ULA is paying for the development itself, but, as he said at a recent House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing, he will not turn down any help the government might want to offer.  ULA will pay for it out of its profits and he acknowledged that ULA’s parent companies – Boeing and Lockheed Martin – essentially are investing in Vulcan by allowing ULA to use the profits this way.

A video of the press conference is posted on YouTube.

User Comments

SpacePolicyOnline.com has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.