United Launch Alliance (ULA) formed by industry giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing in 2005 is considered by many to be the leading competitor of Space X. Today, the company is reliant on the Delta IV Heavy launcher to carry large payloads. Given each Delta IV Heavy rocket launch comes in at a cost of $350 million, considerably more than SpaceX’s latest Falcon Heavy (around $90 million per launch) while only carrying around half the payload, ULA is developing the Vulcan.
The new rocket will be more powerful as well as partially reusable with recyclable engines, the most expensive making up two-thirds of the rocket’s cost. The latest planning includes the new system known as SMART (Sensible, Modular, Autonomous Return Technology) which will release the engines, guide them back toward earth through the atmosphere, and parachute them groundward to be picked up by helicopter. SMART will be followed by the development of the ACES (Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage) system which will allow the upper stage of the rocket to be reuse as well as refuellable while in orbit. The latest estimates state a launch of the Vulcan will cost less than $100 million, considerable savings (more than 70 percent) compared to the current costs of a Delta IV Heavy launch.
The Delta IV Heavy is scheduled for retirement after an estimated seven more missions with the reusable Vulcan set to take its place around 2020. The current cost estimates for the Vulcan will be aligned at a competitive price with companies like Space X and Blue Origin’s current projects in what has been dubbed the “new space race.”
When compared to the Delta IV Heavy, which was a one time the world’s most powerful rocket, the Vulcan will be able to carry more than 40 tons into low-Earth orbit, compliments of its six strap-on boosters. (Delta VI Heavy’s largest payload was nearly 32 tons while SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy can lift more than 70 tons.)
ULA indicates significant differences in the two (Vulcan and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy) which will make Vulcan more competitive. First, because Vulcan is modular, solid rocket boosters can be added to increase its size. Next, Vulcan will use fuel that is a blend of hydrogen and cryogenic oxygen which can resist the cold space temperatures, while Falcon Heavy uses RP-1 kerosene which is known to freeze after mere hours in space.
ACES, the upper-state system, is designed to remain in orbit for years, after the spacecraft deploys, and then be refueled in space and reused for a number of transportation functions that have the potential to completely alter space travel as it is today. In addition, Vulcan utilizes SMART which when attached to detachable first-stage engines, allowing their recovery on every flight. This proprietary system will allow boosters to use all their fuel to reach their intended destination with the engines (two-thirds of the cost) still being recoverable when compared to SpaceX’s recovery which requires fuel be conserved for reentry and landing. ULA’s SMART technology will inflate an “aeroshell” on detachment which will insulate the engines during reentry and begin guiding it back to earth. On reentry, a parachute will deploy, and when in range a helicopter will capture it mid-flight and return it safely to earth.
ACES is scheduled for completion in 2023 with SMART following shortly after. The competition in the ever-evolving space industry continues to grow as ULA develops the Vulcan to carry large payloads into space. Also, on the horizon are SpaceX’s development of a cryogenic fuel and the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), and Blue Origin works toward a massive reusable system known as New Glenn.