Is ULA’s new rocket doomed?

With great fanfare United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced their new Vulcan Rocket last month. However since then the news has not been quite so rosy for the company.

Almost immediately after the announcement Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace informed ULA that the name was trademarked, at present we have not heard anything further on this but it could result in a name change.

Last week ULA themselves stated that if the RD-180 engine ban wasn’t altered to allow them to purchase additional engines then the Next-Gen rocket may be impacted.  While this seems a little extreme the logic makes sense, if they cannot generate revenue from additional launches then funding a new rocket is going to impact the bottom line more severely.  At present ULA board has not fully committed to investing in the new rocket, and while they have approved the milestones for this year they are only committing funds on a quarterly basis.

Add to that the recent SpaceX certification to fly national security space missions thereby removing the monopoly ULA had on the segment.  Not only do ULA risk losing launches to SpaceX but even if they win it seems likely that they will have to lower their costs to compete thereby generating lower profits.

While ULA does have the Delta rocket family they could fall back on, they have made it very clear that it costs too much to produce and they are only keeping the Delta Heavy option for as long as customers are willing to pay for it.

So in summary it is very unlikely that the Vulcan rocket will be cancelled however the fact that it may take until 2022 before it can fly national security space missions and given the potential shortage of RD-180 engines ULA could be facing some hard times over the coming years as they attempt to fund the new rocket and also deal with the changing market that they once dominated.

It should also be noted that because the Air Force requires at least two launch options for it’s hardware it is very likely that something will be done to ensure ULA or another vendor other than SpaceX is available for future launches.

The information regarding the potential impact of the RD-180 engines was taken from the linked SpaceNews article.

Will ULA’s Vulcan bring down SpaceX

Almost as soon as United Launch Alliance’s Tory Bruno announced the new Vulcan rocket system did articles start to appear stating that it “would bring down SpaceX”.   One from CNN also incorrectly stated that SpaceX aborted the landing of the first stage yesterday.

While that may be the goal of ULA it is way too soon to be making such bold statements.

First as stated yesterday the upgrades will be rolled out in multiple steps starting in 2019 assuming that everything goes as planned with Blue Origin’s development of the BE-4 engine.  Even then ULA will have to demonstrate that the rocket is as reliable as there current Atlas V or Delta IV before they can move the government launches to the platform, in previous statements Tory himself said certification could take several years.  That doesn’t take into account any re-certification that may be needed when the new upper stage is rolled out.

Second their re-usability plan is for the engines only which will be captured in mid-air and then lowered to a barge and returned to base.  While this has been done before it still relies on the weather co-operating and the time needed to return the engines to the factory/hanger for inspection, re-firing and re-integration with another first stage core.   At present SpaceX have the same challenges with the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) system, but longer term returning to the launch site looks to be more beneficial, only time will tell on that.

Third four-six years is a long time and SpaceX will have plenty of time to improve their offerings, both in relation to payload capacity with Falcon Heavy and on-time launch something they have struggled with so far.

So will Vulcan bring down SpaceX?  It seems very unlikely that on its own the new rocket system will bring them down, it will all depend on how SpaceX performed before Vulcan comes online and how they adapt to the competition that it will bring.

ULA announces new Launch System

ULA_VulcanToday United Launch Alliance announced there next generation launch system named Vulcan.  ULA’s Tory Bruno announced that the new launch system will be rolled out in multiple steps.  The first step will be the replacement first stage, followed later by a new upper stage.

The first stage of the rocket will be powered by two Blue Origin BE-4 engines providing 1.1m lbs of thrust and can be configured with up to six solid rocket boosters to increase the total payload capacity depending on customers needs.  To take full advantage of the power provided by the new engines the first stage will contain larger fuel tanks.  The first flight of the new Vulcan rocket is expected in 2019 and will use the current Centaur upper stage.

The new upper stage Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) will change depending on the needs of the customer, it will use between one and four engines as well as ULA’s new Integrated Vehicle Fluids System which will allow un-limited burns and also refueling.  No date has been given yet on when they expect to fly the new upper stage.

In addition Tory also announced that the Vulcan rocket’s main engines would be re-usable, the engines would detach from the stage after first stage separation and would then be captured in mid-air and returned to base for inspection and integration for another launch.  Tory also announced that later this year they would be outlining a new method for buying the rockets, more details to follow.