Reusable Rocket Systems Eyed For ULA’s Next Generation Launchers

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta-IV Heavy will be totally phased out by the BE-4 methane powered Next Generation Launch System (NGLS). Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta-IV Heavy will be totally phased out by the BE-4 methane powered Next Generation Launch System (NGLS). Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace

Reusable rocket elements will likely be part of the Next Generation Launch System (NGLS) being unveiled by United Launch Alliance (ULA) at the 31st National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs April 13-16.

The NGLS will mark the first major challenge to SpaceX’s reusable Falcon rocket development and could involve the downrange recovery and reuse of engines alone, as opposed to the SpaceX design that uses 30 percent of its propellant load to flyback the entire first stage to the launch site.

The NGLS objective to completely replace the Atlas-V and Delta-IV designs in the coming years is driving the development of three new U.S. liquid rocket engines to serve all the missions envisioned “from LEO to Pluto,” said Tory Bruno, ULA president and chief executive officer.

This Delta-IV oxygen/hydrogen upper stage will be replaced by a more powerful and flexible upper stage developed specifically for NGLS rockets. Photo Credit: NASA / USAF

This Delta-IV oxygen/hydrogen upper stage will be replaced by a more powerful and flexible upper stage developed specifically for NGLS rockets. Photo Credit: NASA / USAF

Those are:

  • The methane/oxygen powered 550,000 lb. thrust BE-4 developed by Blue Origin for replacement of the single Russian RD-180 in the Atlas V. Twin BE-4s will be used in the Atlas.
  • A new Aerojet Rocketdyne liquid propellant engine called the AR-1 being developed as a backup to the BE-4 as well as other potential propulsion needs. It will have somewhat less thrust than a BE-4. NASA has contributed about $50 million for this engine development to help reinvigorate the sagging U. S. liquid rocket propulsion development capability.
  • ULA is also leading development of the new high energy upper stage to replace the RL-10 oxygen/hydrogen line pioneered in the 1960s.

As part of the NGLS infrastructure, ULA will sharply reduce the combined number of launch pads at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Vandenberg AFB, Calif., from five to two—one on each coast to launch all versions of the NGLS replacing Atlas and Delta operations. That alone will be a tremendous cost saving to ULA.

ULA has been keeping major design aspects of its NGLS secret in order to make a big news splash at the symposium. However, at a recent (but little noticed) presentation to the Stanford University Student Space Initiative, Bruno discussed at length reusable rocket NGLS engineering tradeoffs, but declined to specifically say how they applied to the new rockets.

Bruno raised the reusability question, then answered himself by saying, “I’m not going to share the architecture of the Next Generation Launch System [here at Stanford ] so there will be no spoilers tonight—ahead of the Colorado Springs symposium,” he said. “But but what I would like to do is talk about the systems engineering in general for reusability.”

He said with NGLS he is “feeling a tremendous sense of optimism and excitement about our future . We are on the threshold of a huge adventure.”

“We need to make space more accessible for that great journey that you and I are at right now, so I am transforming our company.  We have cut the price of launch in half and I will do it again with the NGLS, and I will do the same for the cycle time for launches,” Bruno said at Stanford. “We will introduce a new rocket and an entirely new and unprecedented way about purchasing those rockets.”

“We are going to make space so much more accessible than it ever has been before,” he said. The current cost of an Atlas-V launch is $164 million, while a Delta-IV Heavy costs $389 million.

Each Atlas V is powered by a single oxygen/kerosene Russian RD-180 with two engine nozzles. By 2019 ULA hopes to instead power the launcher with two BE-4 methane/oxygen engines. Photo Credit: NASA / ULA

Each Atlas V is powered by a single oxygen/kerosene Russian RD-180 with two engine nozzles. By 2019 ULA hopes to instead power the launcher with two BE-4 methane/oxygen engines. Photo Credit: NASA / ULA

A major impetus to getting the new ULA launch system underway is the risk the Russian government could suddenly cut off the supply of RD-180 engines. But the U. S. could also halt import of the engines.

A single RD-180 engine with twin nozzles is used in each Atlas V.

Bruno appeared last week before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces urging the lawmakers not to halt access to the RD-180s until he has time to get the NGLS underway.

“The current narrow interpretation of the Defense Authorization bill could preclude ULA from receiving previously ordered engines, which means the Air Force would only have one provider. Not only is that anti-competitive, it puts the Air Force national security mission requirements at risk,” he told the subcommittee.

The new launch system is expected to produce its first flight in 2019, with full certification in 2022-2023.

“If the RD-180 is prematurely cut off before a new engine and vehicle is certified, there will be no other launch provider who can perform the full range of launch capabilities currently required under the law,” Bruno said, referring to Assured Access to Space, which requires that the nation maintain two launch vehicles at all times to support the nation’s launch requirements.

While ULA is preparing for its major unveiling of the NGLS, it has just received a $389.1 million NASA launch contract for the historic Solar Probe Plus (SPP) mission set for launch in July 2018 on a Delta-IV Heavy from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

SPP will be the first mission to fly through the Sun’s outer atmosphere—the solar corona—to examine two fundamental aspects of solar physics: why the corona is so much hotter than the Sun’s surface, and what accelerates the solar wind that affects Earth and our Solar System. Understanding these fundamental phenomena has been a top-priority science goal for more than five decades. SPP will orbit the Sun 24 times, closing to within 3.9 million miles of its surface with the help of seven Venus flybys.

 

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23 comments to Reusable Rocket Systems Eyed For ULA’s Next Generation Launchers

  • Tracy the Troll

    Well at its a start in the right direction…Still I am expecting the reimergence of VentureStar SSTO…very soon …I hope

  • Neil

    What the? SpaceX has been constantly ridiculed by the major launch providers and posters but guess what, now it appears they might actually be onto something. Why have the existing companies not invested in this idea before? After all, it’s apparently rocket science 🙂
    Cheers

    • Tim Andrews

      ULA has yet to formally announce their plans, but a couple of years ago they published a proposal for a partial recovery system. If that’s what they go with it’s a very different approach from what SpaceX is trying (except for SpaceX’s fairing recovery plan – it’s very similar to that).

      In the ULA proposal the engine compartment at the bottom of the booster separates from the rest of the booster, uses an inflatable skirt to slow to sub-sonic speeds then pops a parachute and gets scooped up by a helicopter before it falls into the ocean. It can then be gently lowered to a boat or facility on land – no landing gear or landing fuel are needed on the rocket. Their rational is that the engines are the most expensive part of the rocket and the only part worth the expense to recover and reuse.

    • Matt

      Companies actually have invested in this before. SpaceX is not the inventor or reusabilty. Boeing’s Delta Clipper (a cousin of the Delta rocket family) made several test flights in the 90’s. It just didn’t turn out to be economical at the time. Heck, the Shuttle was reusable. Since then, it’s always been about economics, not technology.

  • Lori Robin

    Follow the leader!

  • Tracy the Troll

    I think this is a red herring….VentureStar will be the next replacement for the Atlas/Delta..

  • Dennis Berube

    I don’t think Venture Star will return as a viable launch system. The thoughts today are deep space and colonization. Wasn’t the Venture Star Al Gores baby, but was cancelled?

    • Tracy the Troll

      The x-33 demo prototype was cancelled because the polycarbon fiber LOX & H tank could not withstand the pressure and exploded in testing. Grumman solved these issues in 2004. All of the needed breakthroughs have occurred and this tech is sitting on the shelf just waiting for the right market to implemented…After all why would you put forth a launcher for $20M when you can provide one at $200M
      On a cost plus profit contract?

      • Unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9.X or ULA’s offering, the X-33, really Venture Star, was fully reusable, had superior cross-range capabilities to a capsule, and from those I know who worked on it, had a metallic-ceramic TPS that allowed it to be launched in rain or, as one joked even in light hale. Lastly, at 20.4 mT, Venture Star’s working payload was nearly twice that of a Falcon 9.1’s 13 mT, which costs $90M sans Dragon.

        So, if a Venture Star launch is 120% more expensive, is fully reusable, can upload 60% more payload than a partially reusable launcher, and can land in more places in N. America, yeah, I can see how attractive that would be. Sorta hope LockMart takes it out of storage and finishes the X-33.

  • Joe

    “The NGLS will mark the first major challenge to SpaceX’s reusable Falcon rocket development and could involve the downrange recovery and reuse of engines alone, as opposed to the SpaceX design that uses 30 percent of its propellant load to flyback the entire first stage to the launch site.”

    This is a first key. They are apparently not talking about fly back maneuvers (thus making it a lot more potentially realistic). The question then is, will such a recovery and reuse system be more efficient (that is less expensive) than an equivalent expendable.

    “As part of the NGLS infrastructure, ULA will sharply reduce the combined number of launch pads at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Vandenberg AFB, Calif., from five to two—one on each coast to launch all versions of the NGLS replacing Atlas and Delta operations. That alone will be a tremendous cost saving to ULA.”

    This is a second key. That would dramatically reduce overhead but, ULA would be giving up the use of two boosters to do the same task. That was a DoD need for assured access to launch. Is the DoD comfortable with this?

    • Tim Andrews

      Re: Two boosters for assured access, it is expected that by the time ULA retires the single core Delta IV the Atlas V won’t be the only other ELLV qualified booster available to the Air Force The major concern ULA’s been voicing recently is that if the deadline to stop using RD-180s in the Atlas V isn’t extended until NGLS is ready, that then only one booster would be available.

      ULA’s CEO regarding the limit on RD-180 purchases: “Limit of less than 29 leaves both a gap in NSS capability and a period with only one provider (not ULA). Hence the Sec’s resp.”
      https://twitter.com/torybruno/status/570945108238938112

      • Joe

        “Re: Two boosters for assured access, it is expected that by the time ULA retires the single core Delta IV the Atlas V won’t be the only other ELLV qualified booster available to the Air Force The major concern ULA’s been voicing recently is that if the deadline to stop using RD-180s in the Atlas V isn’t extended until NGLS is ready, that then only one booster would be available.”

        Sorry but that is confusing (at least to me).

        Question, when ULA is down to only variants of the NGLS; what is the second booster?

        • Tim Andrews

          EELV Certified now: Atlas IV, Delta V

          Expected to be EELV Certified before the year is out: Atlas IV, Delta V, Falcon 9

          Expected once Delta V is retired (not counting Delta Heavy, as they do plan to keep it flying, but it’s price and power are beyond most EELV needs): Atlas V, Falcon 9

          Expected after NGLS is available: NGLS, Falcon 9

          If RD-180 restrictions stay in place and Atlas V is not allowed before NGLS is ready: Falcon 9

          The last scenario is the “only one provider (not ULA)” that ULA’s CEO was talking about.

          The two straightforward ways to avoid that would be for congress to lift the upcoming ban on RD-180 for Air Force launches, or for ULA to not retire the Delta V single core. Retiring the Delta a good move for ULA, because it strengthens the argument for lifting the RD-180 ban on the grounds of needing 2 launchers (Atlas V and Falcon 9) available to the government for assured access to space. If they keep the Delta V flying as their only single-core launcher there will still be two launchers and two providers but it will be harder for ULA to win bids on price during that time period, since Delta is so much more expensive than Atlas.

          • Tim Andrews

            Haha – looks like a couple of IVs and Vs swapped in there… Somehow I always garble things when typing on my phone.

          • Joe

            OK.

            So your theory is that ULA has now ceded the redundant booster requirement to SpaceX (magnanimous of them).

            If true that capitulation would be an enormous political victory for SpaceX.

            Do you have a source where ULA has publically affirmed that your theory is correct?

            • Tim Andrews

              See the above tweet and the string of tweets before it from ULA’s CEO, where he’s talking about there only being one EELV provider (not ULA) when ULA the RD-180 ban (if it stays on schedule) takes Atlas V off the table before NGLS is ready.

              I don’t think he was ceding on the government’s requirement that there be 2 launch vehicles available, but rather using the requirement as an argument in favor of lifting the RD-180 ban, so they can keep flying the Atlas V until the NGLS is ready.

            • Tim Andrews

              Here’s a quote from Bruno that’s more clear, not hampered by the character limit from Twitter:
              “In this new environment, where the policy has changed to assure access through the existence of two providers, I will now retire the Delta medium class of space launch vehicles,”

              http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/US_to_Scrap_Delta_IV_Launch_Vehicle_in_Favor_of_Russian_Made_Rocket_999.html

              • Joe

                From reading various quotes in the linked to article you could draw at least three (mutually exclusive) conclusions:

                (1) The requirement for duplicate launchers is being relieved.
                (2) ULA is planning to meet the duplicate launcher requirement by having two developments (one with Blue Origin, one with Aerojet).
                (3) DoD (independent of ULA) intends to use SpaceX as the alternate launch service provider.

                The only one of those conclusions supported by and actual Bruno quote:

                “”In this new environment, where the policy has changed to assure access through the existence of two providers, I will now retire the Delta medium class of space launch vehicles,” Bruno added.”

                That would support number (1). That is that the duplicate launcher requirement is going to be abandoned.

  • Gary Church

    “-the engine compartment at the bottom of the booster separates from the rest of the booster, uses an inflatable skirt to slow to sub-sonic speeds then pops a parachute and gets scooped up by a helicopter before it falls into the ocean.”

    A design that separates from the stage- and discards most of the thrust bell- and then encloses itself in a waterproof bladder- and then parachutes into the ocean- might work. Thumbs down on helo in-flight recovery; weather alone makes that impractical.

    The question is will the cost of recovering it, inspecting the turbopumps and plumbing, gymbals, and everything else, mounting and re-certifying it for flight on a vehicle, be cheaper than just sinking it and using a new engine? Because this did not break even with a bunch of easy-to-inspect SRB steel cylinder segments I doubt it.

    The operating pressures and temperatures in a turbine driving a turbopump are ruinous- like a hot rod engine. The SSME’s proved how expensive it is trying to make them last. In my view the SRB is a better deal for the lower stage and expending the upper stage engine while using the upper stage as a workshop is the best that can be had.
    I like the idea of recovering and resuing the SRB’s at a slight loss because it allows constant inspection. I don’t like the toxic solid fuel byproducts but compared to other pollution sources it is a drop in the bucket and a necessary evil.

    So in my view, full reusability will remain impractical.

    • Tim Andrews

      Yes, certainly catching parachutes will have the same weather related problems as landing on a barge – it reduces launch windows because weather has to be “go” in two places not just one.

      Certainly the operational life of the engine would be critical to re-use. In their paper on partial re-use of the Atlas V, ULA notes that the RD-180 was designed to last through 10 operational cycles.

      Also, yes it’s probably quite expensive to do, but their argument for doing it vs. simply making new engines is that the cost of increasing the rate of engine production is far more expensive.

      “In comparison to nearly every other part of the ro
      cket, booster engines are a scarce commodity with a strict limitation on the total number that can be produced yearly… The cost to amplif
      y yearly production even slightly ranges from the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars simply to upgrade facilities. The schedule effects of damage to these facilities can be long lasting. In short, the payback potential for reusing the booster engine is large.”

      They conclude that for Atlas V, engine re-use would be the practical way to get in more than 15 launches per year. Considering 9 is the most they’ve ever launched in a year, and 14 is the most they’ve ever planned to launch in a year (2017) they haven’t been held back by that limit.

      The report is an interesting read: http://www.ulalaunch.com/uploads/docs/Published_Papers/Evolution/EELVPartialReusable2010.pdf

      • Gary Church

        The safety factor built into a rocket engine allows these “operational cycle” quotes but each cycle increases the probability of failure and that is the fly in the ointment. Both Kerosene and Hydrogen engines have problems with propellent characteristics- coking and low Isp with Kerosene and expensive turbopumps with hydrogen- that make reuse difficult. Methane may help but the fact remains more expensive materials and heavier construction- exotic alloys and more mass penalty- come with reuse and add this to the mass penalty involved in whatever form of recovery and the cost quickly goes up and makes expending the engine a much less risky propostion.

        The solution (for the lower stage) may be the big dumb pressure-fed booster as first proposed with the Shuttle. Built with submarine hull technology a pair of “Methane Monster” reusable boosters that parachute into the ocean like an SRB seems to have many favorable characteristics. But since solid fuel was well-evolved the technology was just never developed. It might be a much better use of funds to invest in developing these really large (10 million pound thrust range?) pressure fed boosters instead of a new turbopump fed smaller engine.

        As for reusing an upper stage engine a 3 million pound thrust range hydrogen engine could be equipped with an ablative heat shield, water proofing bladder scheme and parachutes. Decades of data on trying to make rebuilding the SSME’s work might make this a close to break-even option and as with the SRB’s the payoff with close-to-breaking-even is being able to inspect and insure against any failures developing.

        After the engine package separates the upper stage can continue on as a wet workshop with a much smaller expendable engine. That is in my view as good as it gets for a Human Space Flight application.

  • Jeff Wright

    I’d love to see pressure-feds get some love.

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