Fuel Control Valve Faulted for Atlas Launch Anomaly, Flights Resume Soon

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

A critical fuel control valve has been faulted for the Atlas V launch anomaly that forced a premature shutdown of the rockets first stage engines during its most recent launch of a Cygnus cargo freighter to the International Space Station (ISS) last month – that nevertheless was successful in delivering the payload to its intended orbit.

Having identified the root cause of the engine shortfall, workers for Atlas rocket builder United Launch Alliance (ULA), have now stacked the booster slated for the next planned liftoff in the processing facility at their Cape Canaveral launch pad, the company announced in a statement Friday.

The Atlas rockets Centaur upper stage fired longer than normal after the first stage anomaly, saving the day by making up for the significant lack of thrust and “delivering Cygnus to a precise orbit, well within the required accuracy,” ULA said.

ULA says it hopes to resume launches of the 20 story tall rocket as soon as this summer, starting with the MUOS-5 communications satellite payload for the U.S. Navy.

Following a painstaking investigation to fully evaluate all the data, the ULA engineering team “determined an anomaly with the RD-180 Mixture Ratio Control Valve (MRCV) assembly caused a reduction in fuel flow during the boost phase of the flight,” the company confirmed in a statement.

The Atlas V first stages are powered by the Russian-made RD AMROSS RD-180 engines. The dual nozzle powerplants have been completely reliable in 62 Atlas launches to date.

The RD-180s are fueled by a mixture of RP-1 kerosene and liquid oxygen stored in the first stage.

Up close view of dual nozzle RD-180 first stage engines firing during blastoff of United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the GPS IIF-12 mission on Feb. 5, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of dual nozzle RD-180 first stage engines firing during blastoff of United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the GPS IIF-12 mission on Feb. 5, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Centaur RL10C-1 second stage powerplant had to make up for a thrust and velocity deficiency resulting from a 6 second shorter than planned firing of the first stage RD-180 engines.

“The Centaur [upper stage] burned for longer than planned,” Lyn Chassagne, ULA spokesperson, told Universe Today.

Indeed Centaur fired for a minute longer than planned to inject Cygnus into its proper orbit.

“The first stage cut-off occurred approximately 6 seconds early, however the Centaur was able to burn an additional approximately 60 seconds longer and achieve mission success, delivering Cygnus to its required orbit,” said ULA.

MUOS-5 was originally supposed to blastoff on May 5. But the liftoff was put on hold soon after the Atlas V launch anomaly experienced during the March 22, 2016 launch of the Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-6 supply ship to the ISS for NASA.

Since then, ULA mounted a thorough investigation to determine the root cause and identify fixes to correct the problem with RD-180 Mixture Ratio Control Valve (MRCV) assembly, while postponing all Atlas V launches.

ULA has inspected, analyzed and tested their entire stockpile of RD-180 engines.

Last Friday, the Atlas V first stage for the MUOS-5 launch was erected inside ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The five solid motors have been attached and the Centaur is next.

In this configuration, known as Launch Vehicle on Stand (LVOS) operation, technicians can further inspect and confirm that the RD-180 engines are ready to support a launch.

The two stage Atlas V for MUOS-5 will launch in its most powerful 551 configuration with five solid rocket boosters attached to the first stage, a single engine Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 Centaur upper stage and a 5-meter-diameter payload fairing.

The RD-180s were supposed to fire for 255.5 seconds, or just over 4 minutes. But instead they shut down prematurely resulting in decreased velocity that had to be supplemented by the Centaur RL10C-1 to get to the intended orbit needed to reach the orbiting outpost.

The liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen fueled Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine was planned to fire for 818 seconds or about 13.6 minutes. The single engine produces 22,900 lbf of thrust.

The Atlas V first and second stages are preprogrammed to swiftly react to a wide range of anomalous situations to account for the unexpected. The rocket and launch teams conduct countless simulations to react to off nominal situations.

“The Atlas V’s robust system design, software and vehicle margins enabled the successful outcome for this mission,” Chassagne said.

“As with all launches, we will continue to focus on mission success and work to meet our customer’s needs.”

ULA currently sports a year’s long manifest of future Atlas V launches in the pipeline. It includes a wide range of payloads for NASA, US and foreign governments, and military and commercial customers – all of who are depending on ULA maintaining its string of 106 straight launches with a 100% record of success since the company formed in 2006.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6 space freighter was loaded with 3513 kg (7700 pounds) of science experiments and hardware, crew supplies, spare parts, gear and station hardware for the orbital laboratory in support of over 250 research experiments being conducted on board by the Expedition 47 and 48 crews.

Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a Cygnus cargo spacecraft is being prepared for the upcoming Orbital ATK Commercial Resupply Services-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus was named SS Rick Husband in honor of the commander of the STS-107 mission. On that flight, the crew of the space shuttle Columbia was lost during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a Cygnus cargo spacecraft was being prepared for the Orbital ATK Commercial Resupply Services-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus was named SS Rick Husband in honor of the commander of the STS-107 mission. On that flight, the crew of the space shuttle Columbia was lost during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. The Cygnus lifted off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Cygnus successfully arrived and berthed at the ISS on March 26 as planned.

An exact date for the MUOS-5 launch has yet to be confirmed on the Eastern Range with the US Air Force.

ULA is in the process of coordinating launch dates with customers for their remaining Atlas V launches in 2016.

MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite stowed inside huge 5 meter diameter payload fairing atop Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL set for launch on Sept. 2, 2015. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite stowed inside huge 5 meter diameter payload fairing atop Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL set for launch on Sept. 2, 2015. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The 15,000 pound MUOS payload is a next-generation narrowband tactical satellite communications system designed to significantly improve ground communications for U.S. forces on the move.

ULA says they expect minimal impact and foresee completing all launches planned for 2016, including the top priority OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission for NASA which has a specific launch window requirement.

Blastoff of MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite on United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 2, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Blastoff of MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite on United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 2, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite and Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL for launch on Sept. 2, 2015 at 5:59 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite and Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL for launch on Sept. 2, 2015 at 5:59 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Atlas V Streaks to Orbit on 100th Successful Mission for ULA with Mexico’s Morelos-3

100th United Launch Alliance (ULA) rocket streaks to orbit with Atlas V booster carrying the Morelos-3 mission for Mexico from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 6:28 a.m. EDT, Oct. 2, 2015 as seen from Melbourne Beach pier, Florida.  Credit: Julian Leek
100th United Launch Alliance (ULA) rocket streaks to orbit with Atlas V booster carrying the Morelos-3 mission for Mexico from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 6:28 a.m. EDT, Oct. 2, 2015 as seen from Melbourne Beach pier, Florida. Credit: Julian Leek
See launch photo and video gallery below

United Launch Alliance (ULA) celebrated an incredible milestone today, Oct. 2, with the successful launch of the firms 100th mission on an Atlas V rocket carrying Mexico’s next generation Morelos-3 satellite to provide advanced telecommunications for education and health programs for rural communities and secure communications for Mexican national security needs.

The spectacular predawn liftoff finally took place at 6:28 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida – after nearly being derailed by a Continue reading “Atlas V Streaks to Orbit on 100th Successful Mission for ULA with Mexico’s Morelos-3”

Boeing Rejects Aerojet Rocketdyne Bid for ULA and Affirms Vulcan Rocket Support, Lockheed Martin Noncommittal

Boeing has officially and publicly rejected a bid by Aerojet Rocketdyne to buy rocket maker United Launch Alliance (ULA), which the firm co-owns with rival aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. Furthermore Boeing affirmed support for ULA’s new next generation Vulcan rocket now under development, a spokesperson confirmed to Universe Today.

Aerojet Rocketdyne, which supplies critical rocket engines powering ULA’s fleet of Atlas and Delta rockets, recently made an unsolicited offer to buy ULA for approximately $2 Billion in cash, as Universe Today reported last week.

The Vulcan is planned to replace all of ULA’s existing rockets – which are significantly more costly than those from rival launch provider SpaceX, founded by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Boeing never “seriously entertained” the Aerojet-Rocketdyne buyout offer, Universe Today confirmed with Boeing spokesperson Cindy Anderson.

Meanwhile in stark contrast to Boeing, Lockheed Martin has “no comment” regarding the Aerojet-Rocketdyne offer to buy ULA, Universe Today confirmed with Lockheed Martin Director External Communications Matt Kramer.

Furthermore Lockheed Martin is not only noncommittal about the future of ULA but is also “currently assessing our options” concerning the development of ULA’s Vulcan rocket, Kramer told me.

“With regard to reports of an unsolicited proposal for ULA, it is not something we seriously entertained for a number of reasons,” Boeing spokesperson Anderson told Universe Today.

“Regarding Aerojet and ULA, as a matter of policy Lockheed Martin does not have a comment,” Lockheed Martin spokesman Kramer told Universe Today.

Vulcan - United Launch Alliance (ULA)  next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019.  Credit: ULA
Vulcan – United Launch Alliance (ULA) next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019. Credit: ULA

ULA was formed in 2006 as a 50:50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that combined their existing expendable rocket fleet families – the Atlas V and Delta IV – under one roof.

Who owns ULA is indeed of significance to all Americans – although most have never head of the company – because ULA holds a virtual monopoly on launches of vital US government national security payloads and the nation’s most critical super secret spy satellites that safeguard our national defense 24/7. ULA’s rocket fleet also launched scores of NASA’s most valuable science satellites including the Curiosity Mars rover, Dawn and New Horizons Pluto planetary probe.

Since 2006 ULA has enjoyed phenomenal launch success with its venerable fleet of Atlas V and Delta IV rockets.

“ULA is a huge part of our strategic portfolio going forward along with our satellites and manned space business. This bid we’ve really not spent much time on it at all because we’re focusing on a totally different direction,” said Chris Chadwick, president and chief executive of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, on Sept. 16 at the Air Force Association’s annual technology expo in National Harbor, Maryland – according to a report by Space News.

Boeing offered strong support for ULA and the Vulcan rocket.

Vulcan is ULA’s next generation rocket to space that can propel payloads to low Earth orbit as well as throughout the solar system – including Pluto. It is slated for an inaugural liftoff in 2019.

Vulcan’s continued development is being funded by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, but only on a quarterly basis.

The key selling point of Vulcan is that it will be an all American built rocket and it will dramatically reduce launch costs to compete toe to toe with the SpaceX Falcon rocket family.

“To be successful and survive ULA needs to transform to be more of a competitive company in a competitive environment,” ULA VP Dr. George Sowers told Universe Today in a wide ranging interview regarding the rationale and goals of the Vulcan rocket.

And there is a heated competition on which of two companies will provide the new American built first stage engine that will replace the Russian-built RD-180 that currently powers the ULA Atlas V.

Vulcan’s first stage will most likely be powered by the BE-4 engine being developed by the secretive Blue Origin aerospace firm owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos.

This week ULA announced an expanded research agreement with Blue Origin about using the BE-4.

But ULA is also evaluating the AR-1 liquid fueled engine being developed by Aerojet-Rocketdyne – the company that wants to buy ULA.

The Atlas V dependence on Russia’s RD-180’s landed at the center of controversy after Russia invaded Crimea in the spring of 2014, raising the ire of Congress and enactment of a ban on their use several years in the future.

ULA is expected to make a final decision on which first stage engine to use between Blue Origin and Aerojet-Rocketdyne, sometime in 2016.

The engine choice would clearly be impacted if Aerojet-Rocketdyne buys ULA.

Boeing for its part says they strongly support ULA and continued development of the Vulcan.

“Boeing is committed to ULA and its business, and to continued leadership in all aspects of space, as evidenced by the recent announcement of an agreement with Blue Origin,” Boeing spokesperson Anderson told me.

Lockheed Martin in complete contrast did not express any long term commitment to Vulcan and just remarked they were merely “actively evaluating continued investment,” as is their right as a stakeholder.

“We have made no long-term commitments on the funding of a new rocket, and are currently assessing our options. The board is actively evaluating continued investment in the new rocket program and will continue to do so,” Lockheed Director, External Communications Matt Kramer told Universe Today.

Another factor is that Aerojet-Rocketdyne has also sought to buy the rights to manufacture the Atlas V from ULA, which is currently planned to be retired several years after Vulcan is introduced, officials have told me.

MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite and Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL for launch on Sept. 2, 2015 at 5:59 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Aerojet-Rocketdyne made a bid to buy ULA, manufacturer of the Atlas V, for approximately $2 Billion. MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite and Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL for launch on Sept. 2, 2015 at 5:59 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Atlas V enjoys unparalleled success. Earlier this month on Sept. 2, ULA conducted its 99th launch with the successful blastoff of an Atlas V with the MUOS-4 military communications satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for the U.S. Navy.

Boeing has also chosen the Atlas V as the launcher that will soon propel Americans astronauts riding aboard the commercially developed Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ taxi to the Earth-orbiting International Space Station (ISS).

Starliner will eventually blastoff atop Vulcan after the Atlas V is retired in the next decade.

Lockheed provided me this update on Vulcan and ULA on Sept 21:

“Lockheed Martin is proud of ULA’s unparalleled track record of mission success, with 99 consecutive successful launches to date. We support the important role ULA plays in providing the nation with assured access to space. ULA’s Vulcan rocket takes the best performance elements of Atlas and Delta and combines them in a new system that will be superior in reliability, cost, weight, and capability. The government is working to determine its strategy for an American-made engine and future launch services. As they make those determinations we’ll adjust our strategy to make sure we’re aligned with the government’s objectives and goals.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

First view of upper half of the Boeing CST-100 'Starliner' crewed space taxi unveiled at the Sept. 4, 2015 Grand Opening ceremony held in the totally refurbished C3PF manufacturing facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. This will be part of the first Starliner crew module known as the Structural Test Article (STA) being built at Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com
First view of upper half of the Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ crewed space taxi unveiled at the Sept. 4, 2015 Grand Opening ceremony held in the totally refurbished C3PF manufacturing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. This will be part of the first Starliner crew module known as the Structural Test Article (STA) being built at Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com

Aerojet-Rocketdyne Seeks to Buy United Launch Alliance for $2 Billion

America’s premier rocket launch services provider United Launch Alliance, or ULA, may be up for sale according to media reports, including Reuters and the Wall Street Journal. Any such sale would result in a major shakeup of the American rocket launching business with far reaching implications.

Aerojet-Rocketdyne has apparently made a bid to buy ULA for approximately $2 Billion in cash, based on behind the scenes information gathered from unnamed sources.

ULA was formed in 2006 as a 50:50 joint venture between aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing that combined their existing expendable rocket fleet families – the Atlas V and Delta IV – under one roof.

According to Reuters, Aerojet Rocketdyne recently proffered a $2 billion cash offer to buy ULA from Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

“Aerojet Rocketdyne board member Warren Lichtenstein, the chairman and chief executive of Steel Partners LLC, approached ULA President Tory Bruno and senior Lockheed and Boeing executives about the bid in early August,” sources told Reuters.

ULA’s Bruno declined to comment on the story via twitter.

“Wish I could, but as a matter of policy, we don’t comment on this type of story,” Bruno tweeted in response to inquiries.

Aerojet-Rocketdyne currently is a major supplier to ULA by providing first and second stage engines for use in the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. They also manufacture the Space Shuttle Main Engines now being repurposed as the RS-25 to serve as first stage engines for NASA’s mammoth new SLS deep space rocket.

Since 2006 ULA has enjoyed phenomenal launch success with its venerable fleet of Atlas V and Delta IV rockets and also enjoyed a virtual launch monopoly with the US Government and for the nations most critical national security military payloads.

And just last week, ULA conducted its 99th launch with the successful blastoff of an Atlas V with the MUOS-4 military communications satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for the U.S. Navy.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-7 mission for the U.S. Air Force launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on July 23, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-7 mission for the U.S. Air Force launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on July 23, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

But the recent emergence of rival SpaceX – founded by billionaire Elon Musk – with the lower cost Falcon 9 rocket and the end of the ULA’s launch monopoly for high value military and top secret spy satellites has the potential to undermine ULA’s long term business model and profitability. In May, the US Air Force certified the SpaceX Falcon 9 for national security payload launches.

Furthermore a Congressional ban on importing the Russian-made RD-180 first stage engines that power the Atlas V rocket, that takes effect in a few years, has threatened the rockets future viability. The Atlas V dependence on Russia’s RD-180’s landed at the center of controversy after Russia invaded Crimea in the spring of 2014.

To date the Atlas V enjoys a 100 percent success rate after over 50 launches.

The Falcon 9 no longer enjoys a 100 percent success rate after the launch failure on June 28, 2015 on a critical NASA cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Atlas V will also serve as the launch vehicle for Boeing’s new ‘Starliner’ space taxi to transport astronauts to the ISS as soon as 2017 – detailed in my onsite story here.

In response to the Congressional RD-180 engine ban and relentless cost pressures from SpaceX, ULA CEO Tory Bruno and ULA Vice President for Advanced Concepts and Technology George Sowers announced ULA will develop a cost effective new rocket named Vulcan using American made engines.

“To be successful and survive ULA needs to transform to be more of a competitive company in a competitive environment,” Dr. Sowers told Universe Today in a wide ranging interview regarding the rationale and goals of the Vulcan rocket.

Vulcan is ULA’s next generation rocket to space and slated for an inaugural liftoff in 2019.

Vulcan - United Launch Alliance (ULA)  next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019.  Credit: ULA
Vulcan – United Launch Alliance (ULA) next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019. Credit: ULA

However, Lockheed Martin and Boeing are only providing funds to ULA on a quarterly basis to continue development of the Vulcan.

Vulcan’s first stage will most likely be powered by the BE-4 engine being developed by the secretive Blue Origin aerospace firm owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos.

Interestingly, ULA is also evaluating the AR-1 liquid fueled engine being developed by Aerojet-Rocketdyne.

The final decision on which engine to use is expected sometime in 2016.

The engine choice could clearly be impacted if Aerojet-Rocketdyne buys ULA.

Aerojet-Rocketdyne has also sought to buy the rights to manufacture the Atlas V from ULA, which is currently planned to be retired several years after Vulcan is introduced.

To this writer, ULA would seem to be worth far more than $2 Billion. They own manufacturing and rocket launch facilities on both coasts and in several states.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Genesis of ULA’s New Vulcan Rocket Borne of Fierce Commercial and Political Pressures: Interview

Fierce commercial and international political pressures have forced the rapid development of the new Vulcan launcher family recently announced by rocket maker United Launch Alliance (ULA). Vulcan’s “genesis” and development was borne of multiple unrelenting forces on ULA and is now absolutely essential and critical for its “transformation and survival in a competitive environment” moving forward, according to Dr. George Sowers, ULA Vice President for Advanced Concepts and Technology, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today.

“To be successful and survive ULA needs to transform to be more of a competitive company in a competitive environment,” Dr. Sowers told Universe Today in a wide ranging interview regarding the rationale and goals of the Vulcan rocket.

Vulcan is ULA’s next generation rocket to space and slated for an inaugural liftoff in 2019.

Faced with the combined challenges of a completely changed business and political environment emanating powerfully from new space upstart SpaceX offering significantly reduced launch costs, and continuing uncertainty over the future supply of the Russian-made RD-180 workhorse rocket engines that power ULA’s venerable Atlas V rocket, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Sowers and ULA’s new CEO Tory Bruno were tasked with rapidly resolving these twin threats to the firms future well being – which also significantly impacts directly on America’s national security.

“Our current plan is to have the new Vulcan rocket flying by 2019,” Sowers stated.

Whereas ULA enjoyed a virtual US launch monopoly for many years, those days are now history thanks to SpaceX.

Vulcan - United Launch Alliance (ULA)’s next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019.  Credit: ULA
Vulcan – United Launch Alliance (ULA) next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019. Credit: ULA

The Vulcan launcher was created in response to the commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and it will combine the best features of ULA’s existing unmanned Atlas V and Delta IV booster product lines as well as being revamped with new and innovative American-made first stage engines that will eventually be reusable.

It will meet and exceed the capabilities of ULA’s current stable of launchers, including the Delta IV Heavy which recently launched NASA’s maiden Orion crew module on an unmanned test flight in Dec. 2014.

“We at ULA were faced with how do we take our existing products and transform them into a single fleet that enables us to do the entire range of missions on just one family of rockets.”

“So that was really the genesis of what we now call the “Vulcan” rocket. So this single family will be able to do everything [from medium to heavy lift],” Sowers told me.

Another requirement is that Vulcan’s manufacturing methodology be extremely efficient, slashing costs to make it cost competitive with the Space X Falcon 9. Sowers said the launcher would sell “for less than $100 million” at the base level.

“Vulcan will be the highest-performing, most cost-efficient rocket on the market. It will open up new opportunities for the nation’s use of space,” says ULA CEO Tory Bruno.

In its initial configuration Vulcan’s first stage will be powered by a revolutionary new class of cost effective and wholly domestic engines dubbed the BE-4, produced by Blue Origin.

It can be augmented by up to six solid rocket boosters, to propel high value payloads on missions ranging from low Earth orbit to interplanetary destinations for NASA, private industry and vital US national security interests.

Vulcan will also blast off with astronaut crews aboard the Boeing CST-100 space taxi bound for the International Space Station (ISS) in the early 2020s.

Cutaway diagram of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket powered by BE-4 first stage engines, six solid rocket motors and a 5 meter diameter payload fairing. Credit ULA
Cutaway diagram of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket powered by BE-4 first stage engines, six solid rocket motors and a 5 meter diameter payload fairing. Credit ULA

Further upgrades including a powerful new upper stage called ACES, will be phased in down the road as launches of ULA’s existing rocket families wind down, to alleviate any schedule slips.

“Because rocket design is hard and the rocket business is tough we are planning an overlap period between our existing rockets and the new Vulcan rocket,” Sowers explained. “That will account for any delays in development and other issues in the transition process to the new rocket.”

ULA was formed in 2006 as a 50:50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that combined their existing expendable rocket fleet families – the Atlas V and Delta IV – under one roof.

Development of the two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV’s) was originally funded by the U.S. Air Force to provide two independent and complimentary launch capabilities thereby offering assured access to space for America’s most critical military reconnaissance satellites gathering intelligence for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), DOD and the most senior US military and government leaders.

Since 2006, SpaceX (founded by billionaire Elon Musk) has emerged on the space scene as a potent rival offering significantly lower cost launches compared to ULA and other launch providers in the US and overseas – and captured a significant and growing share of the international launch market for its American-made Falcon rocket family.

And last year to top that all off, Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, who is in charge of space and defense industries, threatened to “ban Washington from using Russian-made [RD-180] rocket engines [used in the Atlas V rocket], which the US has used to deliver its military satellites into orbit.”

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, March 12, 2015, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
ULA Atlas V rocket first stage is powered by Russian-made RD-180 engines.
United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, March 12, 2015, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

“ULA was formed eight years ago as a government regulated monopoly focused on US government launches. Now eight years later the environment is changing,” Sowers told me.

How did ULA respond to the commercial and political challenges and transform?

“So there are a lot of things we had to do structurally to make that transformation. One of the key ones is that when ULA was formed, the government was very concerned about having assured access to space for national security launches,” Sowers explained.

“In their mind that meant having two independent rocket systems that could essentially do the same jobs. So we have both the Atlas V and the Delta IV. But in a competitive environment you can well imagine that that requirement drives your costs significantly higher than they need to be.”

ULA actually offered three rocket families after the merger, when only one was really needed.

“So our first conclusion on how to be competitive was how do we go from supporting three rocket families – including the Delta II – off of 6 launch pads, to our ultimate aim of getting down to just 1 rocket family of off just 2 pads – one on each coast. So, that is the most cost effective structure that we could come up with and the most competitive.”

Developing a new first stage engine not subject to international tensions was another primary impetus.

“The other big objective that was always in our minds, but that became much higher priority in April 2014 when Russia decided to annex Crimea, is that the RD-180 rocket engine that became our workhorse on Atlas, now became politically untenable.”

“So the other main objective of Vulcan is to re-engine [the first stage of] our fleet with an American engine, the Blue Origin BE-4.”

The RD-180’s will be replaced with a pair of BE-4 engines from Blue Origin, the highly secretive aerospace firm founded by Jeff Bezos, billionaire founder of Amazon. The revolutionary BE-4 engines are fueled by liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen and will produce about 1.1 million pounds of thrust vs. about 900,000 pounds of thrust for the RD-180, a significant enhancement in thrust.

“The Blue Origin BE-4 is the primary engine [for Vulcan]. ULA is co-investing with Blue Origin in that engine.”

Although the BE-4 is ULA’s primary choice to replace the RD-180, ULA is also investing in development of a backup engine, the AR-1 from Aerojet-Rocketdyne, in case the BE-4 faces unexpected delays.

“As I said, rocket development is hard and risky. So we have a backup plan. That is with Aerojet-Rocketdyne and their AR-1. And we are investing in that engine as well.”

More on the Vulcan, BE-4, reusability and more upcoming in part 2.

ULA concept for SMART reuse capability for the new Vulcan rocket involves eventual midair recovery and reuse of the first stage engines.  Credit: ULA
ULA concept for SMART reuse capability for the new Vulcan rocket involves eventual midair recovery and reuse of the first stage engines. Credit: ULA

Meanwhile, the next commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 is due to blastoff this Sunday, June 28, on the Dragon CRS-7 resupply mission to the ISS.

Watch for my onsite reports from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer
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Learn more about ULA, SpaceX, Europa, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Jun 25-28: “SpaceX launch, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Antares and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Launch pad remote camera view.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com