United Launch Alliance (ULA) CEO Tory Bruno unveiled the next generation Vulcan Rocket at the 31st Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. The Next Generation Launch System (NGLS) rocket will encompass a mighty American-made engine, four to six solid rocket boosters, and the ability to be re-used via an ambitious mid-air capture technique. The design of the Vulcan rocket, or NGLS, is much more cost-efficient for ULA customers whether it be used for defense and national security, human spaceflight endeavors for NASA, or the growing commercial space market. The Vulcan Rocket will be able to carry payloads anywhere from low-Earth orbit to the outer reaches of the Solar System.
Right before the press conference, Bruno spoke about the future of ULA and the NGLS at a luncheon sponsored by the company at the Space Generation Fusion Forum. Bruno explained the reasoning behind using America-made engines and the importance of partnerships with other aerospace companies involved in the creation of this game-changing rocket:
“I felt a very great sense of urgency to bring an American engine in to retire the venerable, really high technology Russian RD-180,” explained Bruno. “Where we are right now is that they are in development and they are chugging along making their marks exactly where we expected them to be. They’re going to be driving towards an opportunity for us to have a first flight in ’19. Remember I said ‘good partnerships both parties bring something,’ so they’re bringing the technology and what we are bringing is the know-how to manufacture and production an engine as complicated as that over and over again for the kind of reliability we brought to the market place. Now at 95 launches in a row, all successful, all on time, […] that’s a record no one has ever matched in this industry. So were going to bring that know-how together with the terrific technology, and when I reveal the rocket I will talk more about what that engine can do but I’ll suffice it to say that it will have significantly more performance than the engine it is replacing and it will enable a much more powerful industry.”
Vulcan will make launch services more affordable and accessible. It will encompass an American engine produced by Blue Origin known as BE-4. The partnership was announced last year to replace the Russian-made RD-180 engines that currently power the company’s Atlas-V fleet of rockets. As described in a previous AmericaSpace article, the new BE-4 engine will use liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas to propel it into space. Created for low-recurring cost, the BE-4 engine will involve state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques and design. The BE-4 engine will also meet requirements under commercial, NASA, and the United States Air Force (USAF) Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.
There will be two steps to the Vulcan Rocket as described by ULA. In Step One: “NGLS will consist of a single booster stage, the high-energy Centaur second stage and either a 4- or 5-meter-diameter payload fairing. Up to four solid rocket boosters (SRB) augment the lift off power of the 4-meter configuration, while up to six SRBs can be added to the 5-meter version.”
Step Two of the Vulcan Rocket will replace the Centaur upper stage by a more powerful Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) that will enable America’s next rocket to reach the capability of today’s Delta IV Heavy rocket. According to Bruno, the NGLS will cost “less than half” of the current $400 million heavy-lift rocket. (The Delta IV Heavy was last used to propel NASA’s Orion spacecraft from the Kennedy Space Center on its maiden EFT-1 voyage.) By replacing the Centaur second stage with ACES, it can achieve almost “unlimited burns, extending on-orbit operating time from hours to weeks.” ACES will enable the NGLS to have greater capabilities than any competing rocket on the market.
Another interesting initiative unveiled by Bruno is the Sensible, Modular, Autonomous Return Technology (SMART) that will allow the ambitious rocket launch company to capture and reuse the booster main engines, the most expensive part of the Vulcan first stage, by a mid-air capture via helicopter. Unlike SpaceX, ULA’s competitor that plans to land its Falcon 9 rocket on a landing pad, the mid-air capture enables a controlled environment providing the assurance necessary to recover and re-fly the rocket hardware.
“In addition to the new rocket, we are going to revolutionize the way people purchase launch services. Buying a ride to space is going to be as simple as buying a car,” hinted Bruno during the press conference. “And later this year we’re all going to get back together and I’m going to tell you about something we call ‘Fast Buy and Ready Launch’. It is going to make the revolution possible. So stay tuned.”
Bruno expects the first step Vulcan Rocket to fly in 2019, and ULA plans to downsize from four launch pads to only two—one at each launch site. It is currently unknown if Vulcan will fly from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida or Vandenberg Air Force Station (VAFS) in California. In Step One, the Vulcan will exceed the competency of the magnificent Atlas V rocket and serve the majority of ULA’s customer needs. Step Two will incorporate the powerful ACES to replace the Centaur upper stage and is slated to fly in 2023.
The rocket launch company did not choose the name themselves, but instead allowed America to choose the name of the next generation rocket in an online voting competition. Bruno chose a creative way of announcing the name by tossing two of the three hats on his podium into the audience and placing the last one, “Vulcan,” on his head. Behind him a black curtain dropped to unveil a backdrop with the Vulcan name and logo.
“We thought when we started on this path that this was so exciting that we should invite the public to participate,” said Bruno at the Fusion Forum luncheon. “And what the heck, its our next ride to space, lets let people name their next rocket to space. So we thought we’d let people vote, and I thought it would be fun to get a few votes and maybe some participation. I was absolutely astonished at the energy and the passion and the excitement around it that we ended up with well over a million votes for this rocket.”