Forged in fire, ULA’s new rocket, Vulcan, revealed
COLORADO SPRINGS, CO — Yesterday afternoon, at the 31st Annual Space Symposium, Tory Bruno, President and CEO of United Launch Alliance (ULA ) made a much anticipated announcement concerning its new launch vehicle. Until today, the new rocket has been known as the Next Generation Launch System (NGLS). However, the vehicle is now known as Vulcan – thanks to an online vote of the American public.
Bruno noted that because ULA is “the company responsible for more than 70 percent of the nation’s space launches, it is only fitting that America got to name the country’s rocket of the future.” Over a million votes were cast in the naming competition.
Bruno went on to reveal a few details concerning Vulcan, and stated that the first iteration of the rocket should fly in 2019.
ULA had previously announced a partnership with Blue Origin, a private aerospace company owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, to develop a new natural gas fueled engine, known as the BE-4, and it was expected that the Blue Origin engine would be used to power the NGLS. Bruno confirmed that two BE-4’s are ULA’s first choice for Vulcan first stage propulsion, but that Aerojet Rocketdyne is also developing the AR-1 engine, as a backup, in case there are problems with BE-4 development.
Bruno seemed most excited about the company’s plans to incorporate an Integrated Vehicle Fluids (IVF) system into Vulcan. IVF is a system, which will eventually incorporate a small internal combustion engine in the rocket’s second stage that will burn “waste” hydrogen and oxygen and provide electrical power, additional engine burns, attitude control, mid-course corrections, and the capability for in-space refueling to the stage. The system will reduce weight and cost by eliminating the need for helium, hydrazine and large batteries in the second stage.
Perhaps the most interesting revelation, to which Bruno had previously hinted on Twitter, is that the new launch vehicle will eventually incorporate a system of partial reusability, know as Sensible, Modular, Autonomous Return Technology (SMART) Reuse.
The SMART Reuse system will consist of a first stage engine compartment which will separate from the booster, following first / second stage separation, and deploy an inflatable hypersonic heat shield that will slow the engine compartment to subsonic speed. A parafoil will then deploy and a helicopter will snare the compartment, mid-air, and transport it to either a barge or to land, allowing for later reintegration and reuse.
Bruno explained that “65 percent of the cost of the first stage is in one thing, the rocket engines,” and that SMART Reuse “will take up to 90 percent of propulsion cost out of the booster.” However, engine recovery and reuse isn’t expected until 2024.
Lastly, the first Vulcan flights will launch with the RL10 powered Centaur second stage which are currently flown on the Atlas V. Later versions will fly, in approximately 2024, with what ULA is calling the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES). This advanced upper stage will include, among other things, the IVF system mentioned above.
Bruno described ACES as “truly a game-changer” in that it allows for “Distributed Lift,” a system that allows for more lift / launch flexibility and the capability to accomplish multiple missions, and reach multiple destinations, with fewer launches.
Scott earned both a Bachelor's Degree in public administration, and a law degree, from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He currently practices law in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood. Scott first remembers visiting Marshall Space Flight Center in 1978 to get an up-close look at the first orbiter, Enterprise, which had been transported to Huntsville for dynamic testing. More recently, in 2006, he participated in an effort at the United States Space and Rocket Center (USSRC) to restore the long-neglected Skylab 1-G Trainer. This led to a volunteer position, with the USSRC curator, where he worked for several years maintaining exhibits and archival material, including flown space hardware. Scott attended the STS - 110, 116 and 135 shuttle launches, along with Ares I-X, Atlas V MSL and Delta IV NROL-15 launches. More recently, he covered the Atlas V SBIRS GEO-2 and MAVEN launches, along with the Antares ORB-1, SpaceX CRS-3, and Orion EFT-1 launches.