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ULA Not Ready to Commit to Reusable Next Generation Rocket

By | November 14, 2014
      Tori Bruno ULA CEO

      ULA President and CEO Salvatore T. “Tory” Bruno speaking at the Atlantic Council. Photo: Screen capture from Atlantic Council event.

      [Via Satellite 11-14-2014] United Launch Alliance (ULA) will focus first on an expendable rocket to succeed the Atlas 5 using Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine. Delivering 550,000lbs of thrust each, ULA chose the American-made engine to replace the Russian-built RD-180. Speaking at the Atlantic Council in D.C. on Nov. 13, ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno said that the engine’s design is advantageous for reusability, but for now the company will focus on single-use rockets.

      “There time will come. I am absolutely convinced of that, [but] it’s not here yet,” he said.

      Bruno cited the added mass needed for a powered flight back to Earth as the reason reusability would be counterintuitive. Most of this mass would be in the form of added fuel for the return trip, which he said would be considered waste and would contract from the mass of payloads the rocket could lift.

      “We see people moving in that direction now and it’s very exciting … but for the near term, expendable is going to be the most practical and cost effective access to space.”

      Bruno did not disclose what the BoeingLockheed Martin joint venture’s next generation launch system will look like but said that news is coming very soon. ULA faced mounting pressure throughout the year from SpaceX over its use of the RD-180 engine built by Russia’s NPO Energomash. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the United States Congress became uneasy with using the foreign engine for national security launches. Following a temporary purchasing ban and congressional debates on manufacturing domestic alternatives from scratch, ULA announced a partnership with Blue Origin, whose previously undisclosed BE-4 engine already had three years of development and a new testing facility in Texas.

      The BE-4 builds on the progress Blue Origin made with the lighter BE-3 engine, which delivers 110,000lbs of thrust. When first announced, the plan was to replace the RD-180, which delivers 860,300lbs of thrust with two BE-4 engines that together provide 1.1 million pounds of thrust. But it was unclear whether this new main propulsion system would require an altogether new rocket. During his recent presentation, Bruno did not refer to the rocket that will use the BE-4s as the Atlas 5.

      Blue Origin plans to begin full engine testing of the BE-4 in 2016. ULA is readying for certification flights to begin in 2019. Bruno said the order in which certifications are pursued would be influenced by demand for crewed missions to the International Space Station (ISS). Boeing, along with SpaceX was one of the winners of NASA’s commercial crew program to ferry astronauts to the orbiting laboratory. When competing, the company’s bid used the Atlas 5 with the RD-180.

      For the time being, the company has upped its orders of RD-180 engines from its supplier RD Amross. Bruno said this is in preparation for a near term surge in demand.

      The new engine/rocket gives ULA room to work towards major efficiency goals. Bruno stated that the next generation launch vehicle will halve the launch cost of the Atlas 5, and will also cut in half the cycle time. The ULA-Blue Origin team is employing additive manufacturing and other modern advances to streamline production. The BE-4’s reusability, thanks in part to its use of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) as fuel, is a valuable characteristic in meeting these goals.

      “Increasing to that size rocket engine with that propellant is very attractive because it’s inexpensive, easily accessible and it burns very clean so it enables reusability of the engine; it makes testing simpler because you can fire the same engine several times to test different situations [and] different environments without having to completely rebuild it,” said Bruno.

      Bruno added that ULA is focused on making its launch services more available to the commercial marketplace. As the new CEO, he said he is reorganizing the company to make it much more agile. This would benefit government customers too, he said.