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ULA Eager to Tap Commercial Market with Vulcan Rocket

By Caleb Henry | May 22, 2015
      Artist rendition of the future Vulcan vehicle during lift off. Photo: ULA

      Artist rendition of the future Vulcan vehicle during lift off. Photo: ULA

      [Via Satellite 05-22-2015] United Launch Alliance is gunning to make its next generation launch system, Vulcan, competitive enough to actively bid in the commercial launch market while keeping the Atlas 5 in play long enough to ensure a seamless transition. Vulcan, unveiled at the National Space Symposium earlier this year, conflates features from both current vehicles lines — Atlas and Delta — into a new domestically produced system. The joint BoeingLockheed Martin venture plans to overhaul both its current technology and business plan to become a more active player in the launch sector as it increasingly gets more competitive. Speaking May 21 at the Washington Space Business Roundtable, ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno detailed steps the company is taking to meet previously stated goals of cutting both the cost to launch and time to launch in half.

      The first major step in reaching these goals is replacing the Russian-built RD-180 first-stage engine currently used to power the Atlas 5. ULA, pressured by geopolitical instability following Russia’s February 2014 invasion of Ukraine and the rise of SpaceX as a competitor, partnered with Blue Origin to design a U.S.-built engine, the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)-powered BE-4, as a replacement. When announced, it was not immediately clear whether or not the new engines — it takes two BE-4s to match the thrust of the RD-180 — would require an altogether new rocket. Aerojet Rocketdyne is also producing the kerosene-fueled AR-1 as an alternative replacement. Bruno said the beginning of the transition to Vulcan will start with using one of those engine options and keeping the rest of the Atlas 5 as it is today.

      “Everything above that will essentially be the same,” he said. “We’ll bring that engine in, take it underneath the Atlas and we’ll make the adjustments required to the fuel tanks and to the pads — both engines are a little bit longer, the geometry is a little bit different … And then from those fuel tanks north, in that initial set of flights, everything else is the same.”

      The debut launch for this initial configuration is set for 2019. Over time, ULA will transition more fully to the Vulcan. The Vulcan rocket has two configurations: one with a 4-meter diameter payload fairing that can be augmented by up to four Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) and one with a 5-meter diameter payload fairing that can support up to six SRBs.

      Bruno said the rocket, while in transition, would continue to rely on the high-energy cryogenically fueled Centaur second stage. Replacing this upper stage is roughly four to five years away. ULA intends to supplant the Centaur with the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES), which will have three times as much energy as its predecessor. Once in use, ACES will also have 25 times more operating time than Centaur. Bruno expects this will give ULA a greater competitive stance by widening the range of capabilities the launch system can perform.

      “[With ACES] we are in a position to take even the most complex, heavy satellites to the most difficult orbits, but also to be in a position to service the new market that is appearing with smaller satellites,” he said, adding that it would also enable complex on-orbit operations. “We’re not talking about seven or eight hours anymore; we are talking about well over a week. So, after doing that mission, perhaps we might fly out and do something interesting in a space control context — interact with somebody else’s satellite in some meaningful way perhaps; maybe come back to the [International] Space Station and do something else.”

      Bruno said following these advances, ULA would then pursue reusability with the first stage engines — the company estimates it makes up approximately 65 percent of the total cost for the first stage. According to Bruno, the first stage engine, or engines, would be simper to detach and return than the entire first stage, and would not require as much refurbishing compared to parts of the rocket that require hypersonic reentry. ULA plans to use an advanced inflatable shield to protect the engine during atmospheric reentry, following which a helicopter will attempt a mid-air parafoil recovery.

      Bruno said cutting launch costs in half — measured by the Atlas 5 price point, not Delta — will require the completed Vulcan launch system to fully accomplish. Alongside technological advances, ULA’s two main business changes are “Ready Launch” and “Fast Buy.” The goal of Ready Launch is to collapse the wait time between contracting a launch and seeing its actualization from two to three years to a couple of months. Fast Buy will simplify purchasing by offering predetermined configurations at a fixed price. Bruno said ULA will reveal architectures for these steps later in the year.

      ULA’s board of directors commits funding on a quarterly basis, which goes to support these changes. Beyond the need to move away from Russian engines, Bruno said upcoming changes in the market are also reasons for these changes. The U.S. Air Force expects to complete certification of SpaceX’s Falcon 9v1.1 this June, and has already opened up a Global Positioning System 3 (GPS 3) satellite launch for competition in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. SpaceX also intends to certify the Falcon Heavy for EELV competition. The introduction of SpaceX as a contender for national security launches is expected to cut into ULA’s primary market. Furthermore, Bruno noted that the U.S. government’s recapitalization of national security satellites will soon wind down. When this happens, Air Force demand will decrease, requiring ULA to find other customers.

      “That slump takes us, ULA, from a market potential of 10 to 12 flights a year to a total of maybe five flights a year. Split between us [ULA and SpaceX] that’s two or three a year. We have to, as a company, access commercial and civil launch opportunities. We cannot survive on two flights a year, not as a viable economic entity,” he said.

      Bruno said this market slump would occur before Vulcan can be implemented, adding to ULA’s need to be able to compete with the Atlas 5 rocket. The Atlas 5 is 30 to 50 percent cheaper than the Delta 4, and has a successful track record of 54 launches. Congress could axe ULA’s supply of RD-180 engines before Vulcan is ready. Bruno said there is no way around the necessity of the Atlas 5 until either the BE-4 or the AR-1 is ready, if ULA is to win more than about two launches a year.

      “That’s all we would see if we only had access to Delta. So we must have access to the Atlas as a competitive platform until we have the replacement rocket engine. There really is no plan B,” he said.

      ULA wants to launch the Atlas 5 until about 2022, at which point it would be ready to shift to the Vulcan vehicle.