Thursday, April 16, 2015

ULA Embraces Competition


Click the arrow to watch the April 13, 2015 media event. Video source: UnitedLaunchAlliance YouTube channel.

United Launch Alliance held a media event Monday at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs to reveal that its new “Next Generation Launch System” would be named Vulcan.

ULA held an online naming contest, allowing visitors to vote as often as they wanted.

“Vulcan” was not one of the original names, but an organized campaign by Star Trek fans in the wake of the death of actor Leonard Nimoy got Vulcan added to the ballot.

The choice of the Vulcan name may find ULA in court.

Vulcan Aerospace said Monday they've already notified ULA that this is a potential infringement on their trademark rights.

According to the Vulcan Inc. web site, the company was formed in 1986. Among its holdings is Stratolaunch Systems, currently building the world's biggest airplane as a horizontal space launch system. The web site describes Vulcan Aerospace as “the company within Vulcan that plans and executes projects to shift how the world conceptualizes space travel through cost reduction and on-demand access. Led by industry veteren Charles Beames, Vulcan Aerospace collaborates across Vulcan Inc. for projects dealing with space including overseeing Stratolaunch Systems, one of the projects leading the movement into 'Next Space.'"

Legalities aside, for me the most striking aspect of this media event was the declaration by ULA CEO Tory Bruno that the company will transform itself from a legal government monopoly into a commercial enterprise that will take on SpaceX, Orbital ATK, Ariane, Proton and other global competitors for the growing launch market.

The federal government allowed Boeing and Lockheed Martin to have a legal monopoly in 2006, after both claimed there wasn't enough guaranteed government business to keep their production lines open. So ULA was formed, and for years the Department of Defense granted ULA bulk-buy contracts with little public explanation for the costs.

The rise of SpaceX has changed all that, demonstrating that it's possible to run a very efficient launch business at a fraction of what ULA charges.

In 2014, SpaceX launched the first commercial satellite payloads since 2009 from Cape Canaveral. Five were launched in 2014, with eight on the manifest for this year.

According to the ULA media event, the new Vulcan rocket's engines will be retrieved during launch.


The SMART Reuse approach would retrieve the first stage engines from the edge of space. Image source: United Launch Alliance.

After the upper stage ignites to propel the payload into orbit, the Blue Origin BE-4 engines would separate from the first stage and use an inflatable hypersonic decelerator to re-enter the atmosphere. As it approaches the Earth, a parafoil would deploy so it could be captured by a helicopter, then returned to a ship or barge.

Mr. Bruno said that this is more cost-effective than the SpaceX approach, which attempts to land the entire stage on a drone ship. Bruno believes that the engines are the only parts worth the cost of recovery and reuse.


SpaceX attempts (and fails) April 14 to land a Falcon 9 first stage on a drone ship. Image source: SpaceX.

The market will determine in the end who's right, Mr. Bruno or Mr. Musk.

But that's the great thing about competition. No one would be debating which approach is more cost-efficient if the nation had only ULA as a launch service. ULA would not be evolving its technology today without the government paying for it. Mr. Bruno said ULA would fully fund Vulcan research and development, but also acknowledged he would gladly accept a government subsidy.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are 100% funded by the company and its investors.

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