COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The United Launch Alliance's next generation launch vehicle will feature a reusable main engine and a redesigned second stage, the company announced Monday.
The rocket, dubbed 'Vulcan' via an online vote, will replace both the Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles, the only two current options for military space launch under the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.
Details of the next-gen rocket have been leaking leaked out over the last month, but the greatest surprise of Mondays announcement at the National Space Symposium was the company's Sensible, Modular, Autonomous Return Technology (SMART) initiative, which would allow ULA to capture and reuse the main booster engine.
Tory Bruno, who took over as ULA president in August, said the new design "Takes the best parts" of the legacy launch vehicles while also driving down the cost.
The biggest news of the design is the inclusion of a reusable engine, which the company believes will save an estimated 90 percent reduction in booster propulsion cost.
ULA's competitor SpaceX, which is expected to be certified for military launch by June, have been is testing how to build reusability into their its Falcon series of rockets. Where that SpaceX's design involves landing the full system onto a landing pad, only the first stage engine will be reusable for Vulcan.
Following lift off, the engine will release and then open up an advanced inflatable heat shield for a hypersonic re-entry. That shield slows the engine down enough that it can be picked off, mid-air, by a helicopter wielding what Bruno described as a big hook.
Those engines are then re-certified and re-attached. ULA did not provide an estimated time table for how long that process would take. The goal is to have the reusable technology fielded by 2024.
Also unexpected was the announcement of a new second-stage design. For the first few years of its existence, Vulcan will continue to use the Centaur second-stage design, but in 2023 will transition to the new second stage.
The new system, based on the company's previous work with Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage technology, allows the second stage to operate longer in space. The internal combustion engine is being designed with consultation with Roush Fenway Racing, a racing firm owned in part by the same group that owns the Boston Red Sox.
The extra live life for the second stage, in turn, opens up a whole new world of operations that the company is referring to as "distributed launch." That opens up a concept of operations that George Sowers, vice president of strategic architecture and advanced programs with ULA, said would allow the delivery of heavier payloads without a big rocket.
As Sowers described it, a second stage could be sent up launched loaded with fuel. It could then orbit as other spacecraft stop by and to fuel up — essentially acting as a tanker for a fighter. While ULA is envisioning this as a good way to refuel or resupply a space station, military applications will undoubtedly be weighed by the Pentagon.
Since becoming the point man at ULA, Bruno has driven dramatic changes to a company some in the industry has accused of becoming too complacent in the face of SpaceX, which represents the first true competition for the company in the defense sector.
Bruno said the company has already begun communications with the Air Force, the first step in an eventual certification for military launch. That has included inviting Air Force officials to weigh in during design conversations. Bruno added that he expects an agreement on research and development to be worked out in August.
In just under nine months, Bruno has recognized reconfigured ULA in an attempt to make the Boeing-Lockheed jointly owned firm more streamlined. That effort has led to consolidation of infrastructure, new designs for launch facilities, a change in how the company offers procurement of rockets, the development of an RD-180 replacement and now the new launch vehicle.
Bruno teased another event in June, where he would unveil his formal proposal for how to change acquisition of the rocket. In March, he laid out a rough sketch of his plan for Defense News, where he compared it to buying a base model car which can then be customized.
"Our concept is we are going to have a basic offering and line the bulk of our company up around that," he said last month. "Then we'll have different program offices for custom services. We'll organize what they typically want into packages that they can buy separately, again at a fixed price that they will add to that."