ULA's new Vulcan rocket

June 24, 2015 by Ken Kremer, Universe Today
Rendering of the ULA Vulcan rocket blasting off. United Launch Alliance (ULA) next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019 powered by revolutionary new American-made first stage engines. Credit: ULA

Fierce commercial and international political pressures have forced the rapid development of the new Vulcan launcher family recently announced by rocket maker United Launch Alliance (ULA). Vulcan's "genesis" and development was borne of multiple unrelenting forces on ULA and is now absolutely essential and critical for its "transformation and survival in a competitive environment" moving forward, according to Dr. George Sowers, ULA Vice President for Advanced Concepts and Technology, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today.

"To be successful and survive ULA needs to transform to be more of a competitive company in a competitive environment," Dr. Sowers told Universe Today in a wide ranging interview regarding the rationale and goals of the Vulcan rocket.

Vulcan is ULA's next generation rocket to space and slated for an inaugural liftoff in 2019.

Faced with the combined challenges of a completely changed business and political environment emanating powerfully from new space upstart SpaceX offering significantly reduced launch costs, and continuing uncertainty over the future supply of the Russian-made RD-180 workhorse rocket engines that power ULA's venerable Atlas V rocket, after Russia's annexation of Crimea, Sowers and ULA's new CEO Tory Bruno were tasked with rapidly resolving these twin threats to the firms future well being – which also significantly impacts directly on America's national security.

"Our current plan is to have the new Vulcan rocket flying by 2019," Sowers stated.

Whereas ULA enjoyed a virtual US launch monopoly for many years, those days are now history thanks to SpaceX.

The Vulcan launcher was created in response to the commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and it will combine the best features of ULA's existing unmanned Atlas V and Delta IV booster product lines as well as being revamped with new and innovative American-made first stage engines that will eventually be reusable.

It will meet and exceed the capabilities of ULA's current stable of launchers, including the Delta IV Heavy which recently launched NASA's maiden Orion crew module on an unmanned test flight in Dec. 2014.

"We at ULA were faced with how do we take our existing products and transform them into a single fleet that enables us to do the entire range of missions on just one family of rockets."

"So that was really the genesis of what we now call the "Vulcan" rocket. So this single family will be able to do everything [from medium to heavy lift]," Sowers told me.

Another requirement is that Vulcan's manufacturing metgodology be extremely efficient, slashing costs to make it cost competitive with the Space X Falcon 9. Sowers said the launcher would sell "for less than $100 million" at the base level.

"Vulcan will be the highest-performing, most cost-efficient rocket on the market. It will open up new opportunities for the nation's use of space," says ULA CEO Tory Bruno.

In its initial configuration Vulcan's first stage will be powered by a revolutionary new class of cost effective and wholly domestic engines dubbed the BE-4, produced by Blue Origin.

Cutaway diagram of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket powered by BE-4 first stage engines, six solid rocket motors and a 5 meter diameter payload fairing. Credit ULA

It can be augmented by up to six solid rocket boosters, to propel high value payloads on missions ranging from low Earth orbit to interplanetary destinations for NASA, private industry and vital US national security interests.

Vulcan will also blast off with astronaut crews aboard the Boeing CST-100 space taxi bound for the International Space Station (ISS) in the early 2020s.

Further upgrades including a powerful new upper stage called ACES, will be phased in down the road as launches of ULA's existing rocket families wind down, to alleviate any schedule slips.

"Because rocket design is hard and the rocket business is tough we are planning an overlap period between our existing rockets and the new Vulcan rocket," Sowers explained. "That will account for any delays in development and other issues in the transition process to the new rocket."

ULA was formed in 2006 as a 50:50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that combined their existing expendable rocket fleet families – the Atlas V and Delta IV – under one roof.

Development of the two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV's) was originally funded by the U.S. Air Force to provide two independent and complimentary launch capabilities thereby offering assured access to space for America's most critical military reconnaissance satellites gathering intelligence for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), DOD and the most senior US military and government leaders.

Since 2006, SpaceX (founded by billionaire Elon Musk) has emerged on the space scene as a potent rival offering significantly lower cost launches compared to ULA and other launch providers in the US and overseas – and captured a significant and growing share of the international launch market for its American-made Falcon rocket family.

And last year to top that all off, Russia's deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, who is in charge of space and defense industries, threatened to "ban Washington from using Russian-made [RD-180] [used in the Atlas V rocket], which the US has used to deliver its military satellites into orbit."

"ULA was formed eight years ago as a government regulated monopoly focused on US government launches. Now eight years later the environment is changing," Sowers told me.

How did ULA respond to the commercial and political challenges and transform?

"So there are a lot of things we had to do structurally to make that transformation. One of the key ones is that when ULA was formed, the government was very concerned about having assured access to space for national security launches," Sowers explained.

ULA Atlas V rocket first stage is powered by Russian-made RD-180 engines. United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, March 12, 2015, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer
"In their mind that meant having two independent rocket systems that could essentially do the same jobs. So we have both the Atlas V and the Delta IV. But in a competitive environment you can well imagine that that requirement drives your costs significantly higher than they need to be."

ULA actually offered three rocket families after the merger, when only one was really needed.

"So our first conclusion on how to be competitive was how do we go from supporting three rocket families – including the Delta II – off of 6 launch pads, to our ultimate aim of getting down to just 1 rocket family of off just 2 pads – one on each coast. So, that is the most cost effective structure that we could come up with and the most competitive."

Developing a new first stage engine not subject to international tensions was another primary impetus.

"The other big objective that was always in our minds, but that became much higher priority in April 2014 when Russia decided to annex Crimea, is that the RD-180 rocket engine that became our workhorse on Atlas, now became politically untenable."

ULA concept for SMART reuse capability for the new Vulcan rocket involves eventual midair recovery and reuse of the first stage engines. Credit: ULA
"So the other main objective of Vulcan is to re-engine [the first stage of] our fleet with an American engine, the Blue Origin BE-4."

The RD-180's will be replaced with a pair of BE-4 engines from Blue Origin, the highly secretive aerospace firm founded by Jeff Bezos, billionaire founder of Amazon. The revolutionary BE-4 engines are fueled by liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen and will produce about 1.1 million pounds of thrust vs. about 900,000 pounds of thrust for the RD-180, a significant enhancement in thrust.

"The Blue Origin BE-4 is the primary engine [for Vulcan]. ULA is co-investing with Blue Origin in that engine."

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer

Although the BE-4 is ULA's primary choice to replace the RD-180, ULA is also investing in development of a backup engine, the AR-1 from Aerojet-Rocketdyne, in case the BE-4 faces unexpected delays.

"As I said, development is hard and risky. So we have a backup plan. That is with Aerojet-Rocketdyne and their AR-1. And we are investing in that engine as well."

Explore further: Amazon founder strikes deal to build US rocket engines (Update)

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baudrunner
3 / 5 (2) Jun 24, 2015
That gives SpaceX four years to capitalize on, and improve even more, its revolutionary Merlin engines, which have the most efficient thrust to mass ratio of any rocket engine.
Urgelt
not rated yet Jun 24, 2015
Yep, SpaceX is in a shockingly good position. Almost no-one (outside of SpaceX) could have anticipated just how disruptive they'd be in so short a time.

I think it's telling that ULA is basing its next-gen rocket on someone else's rocket engines. They're acting like a company run by accountants and suffering from a shortage of high-quality engineers.

I think the announcement of this new ULA rocket family is tied to the Air Force's decision to certify SpaceX. ULA, their lobbyists, their Congresscritters, and Air Force dragged their feet big-time on certifying SpaceX. Somebody very high in the chain of command - who? - turned that around and expedited the certification. Now, very suddenly, ULA is promising an initiative to lower their costs.

Eventually.

I think the only thing that will keep ULA afloat is a commitment from Government to keep buying their product, even though it's not cost-competitive. I'm sure their lobbyists are hard at work on that.
fasteddie
not rated yet Jun 25, 2015
Hmmmm.....
1. ULA has fantastic people, but...how many readers think that a company that has been a defense contractor - with stand-by retainers and cost-plus accounting - can make the transition to a competitive, commercial company? I do not know of any companies that have ever made this transition.
2. Vulcan has all the earmarks of a "hurry-up-and-create-something-so-we-can-show-Congress-how-buying-more-Russian-engines-is-all-we-need-to-bridge-to-Vulcan. I don't blame ULA for trying at this late date, but as the article hints, the threat from SpaceX is truly existential.
3. SpaceX is aware that there must be two launch sources, and I think they can easily be coerced to help. So, have ULA drop Delta at once. Then, have SpaceX form a separate entity to build a thrust structure for the Atlas V using Merlin engines. A compromise, for sure, but this should be by far the lowest cost way to have two launch sources.
4. Move all big lifts to the SpaceX Falcon Heavy.
More to follow
fasteddie
not rated yet Jun 25, 2015
5. Start next year to reduce the ULA standby retainer (or readiness retainer, or whatever it should be called...it is about $1 billion!) to something more acceptable over three years. Do this in order to give ULA a chance to make the transition. Remember, we actually DO want ULA to survive. BUT...ULA would have to hit agreed-to milestones starting next year to assure us taxpayers that they are in fact reducing their costs.
6. Assuming ULA drives down its cost, plan on giving them 25-35% of launches around which to rebuild their company.
Urgelt
not rated yet Jun 25, 2015
ULA's survival is a lobbying question, Eddie. I don't think they can get there on merit (cost).

Unless, of course, SpaceX screws up some launches.

Or is sabotaged.

What's amazing in this unfolding story is how nimble SpaceX is. Can you imagine how long it would take ULA to set up a live test of a brand-new manned capsule's emergency escape protocol? They'd be at it for years and years, and when they get around to it, they'll have some overweight tower thing at the top of the capsule dragging the capsule upward with thrust, and it won't work out of the box. At all.

It's all but impossible to fix a cost-plus sole source operation, the culture is all wrong. They have an institutional strategy: Get the Government involved in configuration control, then it's the Government's fault when it doesn't work right and requires still more funding to fix, all of it cost-plus. Profit rains on investors, and everything takes forever.
Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Jun 25, 2015
And there's the parachute. Cheapest option for re-usability.


I think it's telling that ULA is basing its next-gen rocket on someone else's rocket engines. They're acting like a company run by accountants and suffering from a shortage of high-quality engineers.


Technically, so did SpaceX. They got their engines from NASA, who got it originally from Northrop.

Unless, of course, SpaceX screws up some launches.


Or they simply fail to meet their engineering goals, which is also a possibility.

What's amazing in this unfolding story is how nimble SpaceX is.


When you got billions of dollars of private money at the hands of a single person, and a government agency willing to give you technology for a song, it's quite easy to kick up a rocket company from the dust.
Urgelt
5 / 5 (1) Jun 25, 2015
"(SpaceX) got their engines from NASA, who got it originally from Northrop."

A drastic oversimplification. Neither Northrup nor NASA had ever 3D-printed an engine. They worked with existing drawings as a starting point, but the engine they engineered is unique.

"When you got billions of dollars of private money at the hands of a single person, and a government agency willing to give you technology for a song, it's quite easy to kick up a rocket company from the dust."

Pure nonsense.

Ask Jeff Bezos how easy it is. Ask Richard Branson. They both want to compete with Musk. They both started in about the same time frame. Musk left them in the dust.
Eikka
not rated yet Jun 25, 2015
Neither Northrup nor NASA had ever 3D-printed an engine.


What does that have to do with anything?

Northrop originally designed the engine used in SpaceX's rockets for use in missiles, NASA used it on the moon lander, and then passed the design on to SpaceX, essentially for free.

Musk left them in the dust.


They're not even in competition. Branson is trying to shoot rich assholes up on fancy suborbital rocket rides to milk them out of their money. Elon Musk got the job because NASA needed a space truck driver.

Urgelt
5 / 5 (1) Jun 25, 2015
Eikka, you haven't checked your facts. Par for the course here, of course, but still, it's unpleasant to witness.

Bezos and Branson are not in competition because they haven't succeeded in placing themselves in competition. That's it. They both have indicated that they *want* to compete. Both have companies who aim to launch to orbit. Neither has gotten very far.

Musk got NASA's business because he proved he can reliably launch to orbit. For the others, it's just a wish. They aren't done trying, of course.

It's absurd to pretend that SpaceX is using old engines; nothing could be further from the truth. They learned by studying drawings; but a 3D printed engine is a new thing, and it had to be engineered from a new starting point. Further, the Merlin engine has a weight to thrust ratio which was never seen in the Space Shuttle program. Or any other program that actually launched anything. It's a new engine, dude.
Eikka
not rated yet Jun 28, 2015
Musk got NASA's business because he proved he can reliably launch to orbit.


Because he was basically given the rockets by NASA. They started with a small privately funded rocket that could lift small payloads into LEO, and then developed the Falcon rockets in co-operation with NASA, with technology from NASA. As far as the most recent Falcon rockets go, SpaceX is basically a NASA subsidiary that pretends to be a private enterprise.

Branson and Bezos aren't doing that. They're aiming for space tourism, and NASA just wasn't interested in that.

It's absurd to pretend that SpaceX is using old engines; nothing could be further from the truth. They learned by studying drawings; but a 3D printed engine is a new thing


But SpaceX isn't 3D printing anything. I think you're confused with something here.
Urgelt
not rated yet Jun 28, 2015
Look it up. The Merlin engine is 3D printed.

Look it up. Bezos has already signed contracts to launch commercial satellites. He definitely wants to compete with SpaceX and ULA.

Look it up. Branson has said he intends to attain the capability to launch orbital missions. He *is* focusing on space tourism. I didn't deny it. But once he can do that, he's in the game.

Quit making shit up, Eikka.

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