ULA unveils the Vulcan rocket project

One of the possible configurations of the Vulcan rocket (Image courtesy ULA. All rights reserved)
One of the possible configurations of the Vulcan rocket (Image courtesy ULA. All rights reserved)

Yesterday at the 31st National Space Symposium being held in Colorado Springs the United Launch Alliance (ULA) presented the project of its new carrier rocket Vulcan, formerly known as Next Generation Launch System (NGLS). The idea is to combine the best features of ULA’s rockets, Atlas and Delta, with some changes to get one that is still reliable but that also allows cheaper launches. The development of the possibility to recover the first stage engines for their reuse is part of the plan.

ULA is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin that handles most of the American launches of satellites and the US armed forces space vehicles. This market in which contracts are worth several billion dollars is in a stage of change because of the increasing competition by SpaceX and the need to abandon the use of the RD-180 engines produced in Russia used by the Atlas V rocket.

SpaceX is making steady progress in the evolution of its Falcon 9 rocket, at the same time reducing the cost of launches. When it becomes possible to recover the first stage of the rocket and reuse it, the costs will drop even more. Moreover, SpaceX uses engines of its own production and therefore not subject to the restrictions imposed on Russians engines after the start of the crisis in Ukraine.

ULA had to respond but developing a new rocket takes time and the first launch of Vulcan is estimated to take place in 2019. Last year, ULA announced a partnership with Blue Origin, a company created by Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder, which is developing a new rocket engine called BE-4 that uses liquid methane and oxygen as propellants.

Initially, the Vulcan rocket will use the Centaur upper stage currently used for the Atlas but in the next decade a new upper stage should be adopted with superior performance. That configuration should create a launch system more powerful of the Delta IV Heavy but with much lower costs.

ULA CEO Tory Bruno stated that the launch of a Vulcan with a configuration equivalent  to the Atlas V 401 will cost around $100 million against the $164 million of the Atlas. The competition with SpaceX will be carried out also with the development of a system of reuse of the engines of the Vulcan’s first stage.

SpaceX is developing a system to land the whole first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket. Instead, ULA intends to develop a system to recover only the engines, which are the most expensive part. Basically, after the launch of a Vulcan rocket, its engines should detach from the first stage after the separation of the second stage, a parachute would slow their descent and a helicopter would retrieve them to bring them to the base.

Recovering and then refurbishing the engines for their reuse has a cost. This means thei must be able to be used in several launches to make it worth to develop the whole recovery system. In this case, it’s estimated that to have an economic gain, the engines should be used for 14-15-16 launches.

The next few years will see a growing competition between ULA and SpaceX which should lead to further declines in the cost of space launches. The Vulcan name was chosen in a public vote between some names but it’s curious that a rocket with a name that comes from the Star Trek saga will be the competitor of the Falcon 9 rocket, named after the Millennium Falcon from the Star Wars saga.

The name Vulcan has been in the news for another reason. Billionaire Paul Allen founded Vulcan, Inc. in 1986, a company that operates several subsidiaries including Vulcan Aerospace, the new aerospace company which now includes Stratolaunch Systems, founded in 2011. Vulcan, Inc. claims the trademark on the name Vulcan. I don’t know American laws so I can’t provide an opinion on this dispute.

Name issue aside, with the NGLS / Vulcan project ULA shows the will to change the situation after that for years it could obtain contracts for billions of dollars. Competition in the field of space launches is becoming really interesting showing that we’re entering a new commercial era.

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