United Launch Alliance unveiled a new rocket system Monday that eventually will replace the company's workhorse Delta and Atlas boosters, ending reliance on Russian-built engines and using a heat shield and a steerable parafoil to return the most expensive component -- the U.S.-built first-stage engines -- to Earth for refurbishment and reuse.
With the addition of up to six solid-fuel strap-on boosters and an advanced upper stage, the new rocket, named Vulcan in a public contest that pulled in more than a million participants, will be just as powerful as ULA's heavy-lift Delta 4 -- the most powerful U.S. rocket currently flying -- and cost much less, according to ULA President Tory Bruno.
In fact, he told reporters at the 31st Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., the cost of the least expensive version will be less than $100 million, rivaling the price tag of a SpaceX Falcon 9 and heating up the increasingly intense competition between the premier American rocket builders.
"This new rocket ... is going to take the best parts of Delta and Atlas and combine them with new and advanced technology to provide a rocket that's not just reliable and certain as Atlas has been, but also much more powerful, higher performance, greater flexibility and significantly more affordable," Bruno said.
Also known as ULA's Next Generation Launch System, or NGLS, the Vulcan rocket is not expected to enter routine service until the early 2020s. Until then, ULA will continue to rely on Delta and Russian-powered Atlas rockets while building and testing the Vulcan.
In a coincidence, SpaceX attempted to launch a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in the midst of Bruno's already-scheduled news conference to boost a Dragon cargo ship into orbit for a two-day flight to the International Space Station, the sixth operational resupply flight under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA.
The launching was scrubbed due to weather, but whenever it flies SpaceX will make another attempt to land the booster's first stage on an off-shore barge to demonstrate the feasibility of recovering, refurbishing and reflying rocket stages that traditionally have been discarded at sea.
The Vulcan rocket system also reflects a new ULA focus on reusability. But instead of attempting to recover the entire first stage, ULA engineers are developing a system to cut away the first stage engine compartment after shutdown for a descent to Earth.
In a dramatic departure from the powered descent championed by SpaceX, the Vulcan engine compartment will be snatched out of mid air by an awaiting helicopter, easing the stress on the components and eliminating any possible salt-water corrosion or other environmental effects.
"This is a distinctly separate approach from what other people are doing," Bruno said. "This allows us to avoid adding complex, expensive, heavy and performance-killing subsystems to a rocket in order to bring entire stages back that then experience complicated and expensive logistics to recover them. Instead, we took a systems engineering approach to what on the rocket is actually valuable."
Bruno presented a chart showing that first stage engines represent just 25 percent of a booster's weight but 65 percent of its cost. ULA's Sensible Modular Autonomous Return Technology, or SMART, is focused solely on recovering the engines.
"We will cut them off, we will return them to the Earth using an advanced inflatable hypersonic heat shield and then ... we will recover them in midair, bring them home to the factory, quickly rectify them and then plop them right under the next booster in line," Bruno said.
"This will take up to 90 percent of the propulsion cost out of the booster. And this is just the beginning."
The SMART recovery system apparently has been in the works in one form or another since at least 2008 when a ULA paper titled "Partial Rocket Reuse Using Mid-Air Recovery" was presented at an aerospace conference. The paper outlined techniques, never implemented, for recovering Russian RD-180 engines using mid-air helicopter recovery.
In any case, depending on the number of solid-fuel boosters required, the Vulcan family of rockets will cover the full range of government payloads, from relatively lightweight satellites to heavy national security payloads that now require the Delta 4 Heavy to reach their intended orbits.
In the first phase of the program, the new rocket will consist of a booster stage, a hydrogen-fueled Centaur upper stage and payload fairings, or nose cones, 13 to 16 feet across. Up to four solid-fuel boosters can be added for payloads using the smaller fairing and up to six for the larger version.
As currently envisioned, the first stage booster will be powered by two BE-4 engines built by Blue Origin, a company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, that together will generate 1.1 million pounds of thrust burning liquid oxygen with liquified natural gas. Full-scale test firings of the new engine are expected to begin next year.
In the second phase of the development program, ULA will replace the Centaur upper stage with a more powerful "Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage," or ACES, giving the new rocket as much launch power as the current Delta 4 Heavy. The upper stage, featuring up to four hydrogen-fueled engines, will be able to carry out multiple rocket firings over periods of weeks if necessary.
The new stage will feature an advanced internal combustion engine developed by Roush Fenway Racing of NASCAR fame to keep the propellant tanks pressurized, to generate electrical power and to provide attitude control. The new stage will be able to operate in space over several weeks at a time, enabling what Bruno called "distributed lift."
Under that scenario, Vulcan rockets could be used to launch large spacecraft components like crew capsules, fuel tanks and habitats that later could be assembled in orbit, for example, over many days.
"We're going to take a giant leap forward in our upper stage," Bruno said.
After developing the advanced ACES stage, ULA will phase in the SMART engine recovery system.
United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Delta-builder Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which developed the Atlas 5, will pay for the new rocket's development out of company profits. Bruno would not reveal how much ULA expects to spend on the new system, but he said a good rule of thumb is a billion dollars to develop a new engine and a billion more to develop a new rocket.
Current Delta rockets use hydrogen-fueled engines provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne. The Atlas 5 is powered by Russian-built kerosene-burning RD-180 first stage engine and one or more hydrogen-fueled Aerojet Rocketdyne Centaur upper stage engines.
Use of the RD-180 has come under intense criticism in the wake of Russia's actions in Crimea and Ukraine.
Waging a relentless lobbying campaign, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has sharply criticized ULA's use of RD-180 engines to launch high-priority spy satellites and other national security payloads, arguing political instability could interrupt downstream launches.
SpaceX also has complained about a lucrative Air Force "block buy" contract for much more expensive ULA rockets, arguing SpaceX had been unfairly prevented from competing for military contracts while ULA enjoyed a virtual monopoly. SpaceX is expected to win Pentagon certification for military flights sometime this summer.
SpaceX advertises the base price of a Falcon 9 at around $60 million. Unique military requirements can drive the cost up to $80 million or $90 million a copy, according to SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell. A heavy-lift version of the rocket, featuring three Falcon 9 boosters strapped together, has not yet flown, but it is expected to cost in the neighborhood of $150 million per vehicle.
The least expensive Atlas 5 is believed to sell for around $165 million. A heavy-lift Delta 4, the only operational booster capable of lifting the heaviest national security payloads, sells for around $400 million a copy. The price tag for the low-end Vulcan is expected to be under $100 million, Bruno said. The cost of a heavy-lift variant is not yet clear, but it is expected to be well below the $400 million charged for a heavy-lift Delta 4.
How ULA's new rockets will will affect the launch landscape is not yet known, but the company's decision to build reusability into the booster's design, along with American-made engines and other improvements to lower cost, would appear to take at least some of the wind out of SpaceX's argument.
Or, depending on one's viewpoint, it reflects a successful campaign by SpaceX to raise visibility about the relatively high cost of ULA rockets, the potential value of reusability and the potential threat posed by reliance on Russian rocket technology.
In a background teleconference hosted by SpaceX late last week, an unnamed official dismissed ULA's new booster as a "paper rocket," saying he doubted it would be significantly cheaper than ULA's current stable of launchers.
"There's no reason today to believe that NGLS will be cheaper than Delta in the future," he said. "Paper rockets, like paper airplanes and everything else, are always very cheap. So I'm sure that's going to be the advocated position. But I can cite for you a half a dozen examples of ... next generation systems that were dramatically more expensive.
"So there's no reason to believe that NGLS and chasing that new pretty piece of paper is going to produce a rocket that is cheaper than Delta," he said.
For its part, ULA challenges the economics of stage recovery and reuse as championed by SpaceX.
"When you do an all-up stage recovery, the economics can be challenging because you've got to recover it close to seven times to break even on costs," Bruno told Spaceflight Now in an interview last week.
"When you do that, the cost versus reuse curve (is) not a straight line, it's not like 'oh, I got to use it twice so now it's half as much.' It doesn't work that way because the rocket itself, if it's built for reuse, is more expensive than a rocket built for single use."
Bruno said cost savings are a "function of how many time you can reuse it. You have to fly seven times to break even and get out to 14, 15, 16 times to get a decent return."
"You're not going to go through all that energy and risk, 20-30 percent performance loss just to be equivalent to an expendable," he said. "You actually want to come out ahead. Conventual technologies on a booster, like you see other people doing, and being able to recover and reuse that booster 15 times with relatively minimal refurbishment costs, that's pretty darn challenging and maybe not the right place, in our view, to work on that problem."