Insider Interview: ULA’s Tory Bruno talks Next Generation Launch System
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Colorado-based United Launch Alliance (ULA ) is preparing to move away from established, and aging, launch vehicles such as the Delta II (which is currently set to conduct its last launch in 2017), Atlas V, and Delta IV. Instead, the joint venture, between aerospace titans Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, has stated that it will produce the Next Generation Launch System or “NGLS” booster. This new launch vehicle will be different than the company’s current offerings. To find out just how different, SpaceFlight Insider took our questions directly to the head of ULA – Tory Bruno.
Bruno assumed the post of Chief Executive Officer and President of ULA on Aug. 12, 2014. Not long before Bruno’s ascension, the company encountered controversy surrounding its use of the Russian-produced RD-180 rocket engine. Since that time not only has ULA announced that it would be developing a new launch vehicle – but that it will be moving away from the RD-180 and will instead use Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine.
Bruno was asked some very specific, pointed, questions regarding the NGLS and he provided SpaceFlight Insider with detailed information regarding the new booster.
SpaceFlight Insider: First Mr. Bruno, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us about NGLS.
Bruno: “It’s my pleasure, we’re very excited about this subject!”
SpaceFlight Insider: First, not much information has been released about the NGLS, can you provide us with a bit of background history about this new booster?
Bruno: “Sure! Well, you know we have been looking at the needs of the marketplace, every year, for years, and as I came on board we put together a strategic plan. we could see that there were a couple of things that would be very interesting in our future. The first was a need to move to an American engine underneath the venerable Atlas launch vehicle which uses the Russian RD-180 and also where we thought the future of where the lift market was going and so we thought that this was the time to evolve to our Next Generation Launch System.
“NGLS will have an American engine, it will be less expensive and it will have greater capability. What we are really trying to offer the government is more flexibility. This will, of course, also be of benefit to our other customers. So we will still be very well suited for low-Earth orbit missions of relatively modestly-sized spacecraft, but then also be able to lift really big stuff, you know, out to GEO and beyond.
“So this vehicle is going to do all of that and it’s going to cost less, it will have more performance, there’ll be more thrust and it’s just going to be a lot more capable.”
SpaceFlight Insider: That ties in very well to a couple of other questions that we have. The U.S. built engine is that Blue Origin’s Be-4? Also, can you detail a bit of the decision-making process that caused ULA to tap that particular engine?
Bruno: “It is the Blue Origin Be-4. We have entered into a strategic partnership with them where we are both investing to actually produce that engine. We picked it for probably two reasons. First, we really liked the technology that Blue is bringing there. It’s a much more simple design. It has a considerable amount of potential for additive manufacturing so that it can be produced faster with shorter cycle times, be more affordable, and it is about three-and-a-half years into its development cycle because we felt some urgency in making this transition and moving to the new vehicle.
“I’ll be honest with you and share that we also have a backup plan because, in rocketry, you have got to have a contingency. As you know, things happen. So we are also working with Aerojet Rocketdyne for a kerosene-based engine that would be a potential backup should something go wrong. But I expect that Jeff Bezos and the Blue Origin team is going to succeed on the BE-4.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Is the Aerojet Rocketdyne engine new – or is it something that they were already working on?
Bruno: “It is a new development engine as well. Different propellant and a slightly lower thrust level [are] likely and because they are just now starting, they are going to be a few years behind Blue Origin.”
SpaceFlight Insider: You mentioned that it is going to be lower in cost and while we know that NGLS is currently in its development phase could you perhaps give us an idea as to how much lower it would be compared to an established launch vehicle?
Bruno: “I’m going to talk in general terms because we really aren’t ready to talk about the specific dollar value yet. It’s a little bit early to be sure what that number will be. However, I can say that it will be significantly less expensive than the RS-68 that we have on the Delta [IV] and we are targeting a… I’ll give you a double-digit percentage reduction in the cost RD-180 for which is sort of the targeted reference to replace.”
SpaceFlight Insider: NGLS will launch from Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base? Will this new system launch from established Space Launch Complexes – or will it be new sites?
Bruno: “You know, the transformation of this offering is broader than just the engine or NGLS and it actually does include our launch infrastructure. So, today we have five launch sites and we intend to move toward having as few as two – one at each Coast. So we are conducting trade studies right at the moment about which sites, which pads we’ll use and what kind of towers we’ll build, mobile launch platforms that will allow us to have, potentially, all three rockets flying for a period at the same time until the others are retired and NGLS takes over and to radically shorten that cycle time to allow those two launch sites to take on the volume of what is currently done by five.”
SpaceFlight Insider: ULA is a merger between two of the largest aerospace companies currently in existence – Lockheed Martin and Boeing with Lockheed Martin providing the Atlas V and Boeing the Delta IV – will this reflect in any way on the NGLS?
Bruno: “Let me talk about that, as it’s not quite the way that you described it. The way to think of it is United Launch Alliance is a standalone company that is owned by two parties – Boeing and Lockheed. So when the company was set up, you’re correct they took the Delta team and the Delta rocket and Lockheed took the Atlas team and the Atlas rocket and they took all those people they uprooted them, put them in one place to form a single company.
“The ‘parents’ as we call them her, colloquially sort of stand back and they own the two shares in our company. They are our Board of Directors and they really take an ownership role and provide what board’s traditionally do which is a strategic oversight perspective. The people who designed, built and support those rockets and all those launch services – are all ULA employees and they are all working together, collocated side-by-side, they have separated from the original companies they are not employees of Boeing or Lockheed once they came here.
“So, it’s really that model, so when we go to NGLS, it’s this team that will do that and will, of course, then have ownership of the company by the two parents.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Thanks for clarifying that. When do you think we’ll see the first flight of NGLS?
Bruno: “We’re targeting 2019.”
SpaceFlight Insider: We recently interviewed Peter Cova over at Aerojet Rocketdyne. He discussed the fact that the AJ-60A, produced by his company, will be used on NGLS. What other so-called ‘legacy’ systems will be employed on the NGLS?
Bruno: “There are several subsystems and components of either Delta or Atlas that are well-suited for the NGLS architecture. So we will bring those forward into NGLS. That lowers our risk and it lowers the recurring investment as well.
“To give you a kind of feel for this, the NGLS is a series of ‘technology introductions. So the first thing that we’re doing is developing this new first stage with this new rocket engine and then, as we move through time, there will be changes to the upper stage as well and some of the other subsystems. We have just started wrapping up some of those trades and we’re going to do a nice big rollout at the Space Symposium where we will show everyone what that architecture looks like.”
SpaceFlight Insider: You mentioned earlier that both the Atlas V and Delta IV programs will eventually be phased out. Does this mean that NGLS will be able to carry out all of the flight profiles to low-Earth orbit, Geostationary orbit, escape trajectories and so on?
Bruno: “That is correct. So, still that full spectrum of what we like to describe as ‘LEO – to Pluto’ (laughs), cause we’re the only folks that can do that, so we’re very proud of that. But even in the first phase of NGLS, it will have more capability, more lift. It will increase what we are currently able to send to all of those orbits and when we have the final version of it [NGLS] it will actually have more capability than the Delta [IV] Heavy.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Does that mean that when that variant of the NGLS is fielded, we can see a similar triple-bodied design like that of the Heavy version of the Delta IV?
Bruno: “Sorry, you’re going to have to wait until the Space Symposium for that!” (laughs)
SpaceFlight Insider: Given that you are streamlining what you’re currently doing, moving from two systems to just one, can you talk about the impact that this will have on your company? How will this affect the workforce at ULA? How will this affect the cost to launch payloads to orbit?
Bruno: “Yes, I can, there is sort of two big steps, two big activities. The first is directly associated with our current block-buy contract that we’re under with the Air Force. You want to think of that contract as ‘buying in quantity’; it’s sort of the Costco of the launch industry. The Air Force came to us a couple years ago and said, ‘We want to do two things – we want to take costs out of the lists and we want to have the flexibility to move satellites around on the manifest.’ So, if we get a satellite that is late and can’t make its originally targeted date and when you’re buying rockets one-at-a-time – that’s a big disruption. It falls outside the period of performance, it falls off the manifest, [and] it loses a manifest slot if the Cape is particularly busy.
“What the Air Force wanted to do was to accommodate all of the potential outcomes as well as they wanted to pay less. So we entered into this block-buy contract that said, ‘Okay, we’ll tell you what, the way that you solve this problem is two ways…’. First, you order 36 rockets at once and then we will lay out the launch sequence against your expected satellites in such a way that they’re essentially in ‘threes’. You could think of them in that way.
“So, for any given spacecraft lift, we have organized the rockets in such an order so that the spacecraft has in front of it – the same kind of rocket. Remember, depending on how you count them, we have about a dozen, different rocket configurations. So this is complicated. That satellite could roll forward and fly early if it was ready early, or it could roll backwards because there is a rocket on the manifest behind it that is the same kind of rocket. So, it could move to the left-or-to-the-right and a different satellite could fill its slot.
“Doing things this way meant that the Air Force would never ‘lose’ a slot, they wouldn’t have to pay a bunch more money to re-host a spacecraft on a different rocket enter it into a new contract for a rocket later – none of that happens.
“Through this effort, they get the quantity savings because we went to our supply chain and we ordered 36 all at once. They now have the freedom to move things around. Because of that, when we entered into a contract with them, because of [those] savings, we basically bid that – for almost four-and-a-half billion dollars less than it would have cost to buy those rockets one at a time, which is what everybody else does.
“So, delivering on that contract is the first part. We entered into it when the ‘buy them one a time model’ was there and all of our rockets cost a certain amount of money and then did an average price for those 36 boosters […] by organizing things this way and getting the teams ready as they know they’ll be working on 36 instead of one of a time made the rockets come in at a lower cost.
“So, when we came out of the block-buy, it was sort of a ‘win-win’ the government saves $4.5 billion and we have arrived at a model and [an] infrastructure that delivers a rocket at a very low incremental price. So that’s the first piece.
“The second element works around what we are calling a commercial pricing model that we would start offering right after that contract that brings the price down a whole other big notch. We will actually reorganize our company, redraw the org chart, we’ll change the way that the contracts work and the way that the customers come in to us to buy the rocket and the services that they want to come with the rocket. Those things together, combined with NGLS, is a much, much less expensive offering.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Does the use of single launch system place ULA, like one of your competitors in jeopardy of encountering a ‘Columbia Moment’, where due to the fact that you are only using a single launch system, if something were to go wrong, you would not be able to conduct missions. Orbital Sciences Corporation has encountered a similar experience with the loss of the Antares rocket that was attempting to carry out the Orb-3 mission. Does ULA run this same risk?
Bruno: “Well, it makes the job more complicated for the government; so, there is a law that requires the government to provide what they call ‘Assured Access to Space’ that is defined in that law as having a minimum of two launch vehicle families of different configurations to provide lift for national security upon demand. That’s basically how the words go. At the time that ULA was formed and up through today, the only two certified systems were Delta and Atlas, and so all of this time until now, that’s how that law was satisfied – by ULA providing two different rockets. That’s why I have two different rockets actually. The Delta and Atlas ‘lines’ overlap almost entirely until you reach the Delta Heavy, which is a little more than our largest Atlas can accomplish. So, that redundancy is there to satisfy the law.
“Now, what has changed in about the last year-and-a-half, two years is the policy that implements that law has said, ‘We would like to have competition and we think that we can arrive at dual-lift, assured access to space by having two companies, as two different providers satisfy that requirement.’ So, it doesn’t necessarily have to be ULA with Delta and Atlas.
“So, all of the procurements that come after that big block-buy I described, that quantity buy that provided all those economies of scale and all of that good stuff, all of those procurements that are going on right now are all competitive. And so, when SpaceX becomes certified, they would be able to be awarded national space security contracts. If they succeed, this Title 10 law can be satisfied by a rocket from ULA and another rocket from a different company with SpaceX being the first one to be certified besides us – and that’s how that would work.”
SpaceFlight Insider: As ULA prepares new engines and new launch vehicles for flight in the coming years, what do you think is the most important thing that the public should be aware of?
Bruno: “It’s really hard for me to pick just one thing. I think that one thing that is particularly interesting is that we are moving to a rocket of that scale that uses methane as a fuel, which is the fuel that the BE-4 operates on. That will be a first, to see liquefied natural gas, methane engine at this scale. You will also see when we roll out the architecture that there will be a, I will say a higher energy, more capable and flexible upper stage in the final version of this. I am probably more excited about what that means for the exploration of space in the future.”
Stay tuned to SpaceFlight Insider’s coverage of the 31st Space Symposium held in Colorado Springs, Colorado, from April 13–16, 2015, where United Launch Alliance will unveil the particulars of this new launch system.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.