Tag Archives: Vulcan

More evidence ULA will pick Blue Origin over Aerojet Rocketdyne

In a press interview published in late July, a ULA executive confirmed that the company is going to pick Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine for its new Vulcan rocket.

ULA used a Russian engine for its expendable Atlas V booster but has long relied on U.S. suppliers such as Aerojet Rocketdyne. For Vulcan’s reusable engine, ULA is turning to Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. The company’s cutting-edge BE-4 is powered by liquid natural gas instead of kerosene or liquid hydrogen.

By partnering with a startup like Blue Origin, ULA gains other advantages. “There is a world of difference between the culture at Blue Origin and the culture at Aerojet Rocketdyne,” said [Dr. George F. Sowers, ULA’s vice president for advanced programs]. “We knew we could absorb some of their culture by osmosis, just by working with them.” That influence shows up in cross-team collaboration. “We are literally breaking down walls to create a ‘Silicon Valley’ workspace,” Sowers said.

Sowers is very careful to say nothing about the Atlas 5 and the engine that will replace the Russian engine in its first stage. ULA originally signed its deal with Blue Origin with the Atlas 5 in mind, but has not made a final decision between Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne because Congress appears to favor Aerojet Rocketdyne’s engine, and Congress is a very big gorilla you do not upset. However, their development plans for Vulcan are incremental and closely linked with the Atlas 5. They plan to introduce Vulcan piecemeal in various upgrades of Atlas 5 as they go, so if they are set on using Blue Origin’s engine in the Vulcan rocket, it probably means that they plan on using it to replace the Russian engine in Atlas 5. This interview appears to confirm this.

ULA chief says Congress deal clears path to Vulcan

The competition heats up: The CEO of ULA, Tory Bruno, said in an industry publication interview today that the Congressional deal that allows the company to buy 22 more Russian engines for its Atlas 5 clears the way for their eventual transition to the Vulcan rocket and an end to dependence on those Russian engines.

The article is worth a careful read, as it also provides a very detailed look at ULA’s future plans for its Atlas 5, Delta 4 Heavy, and Vulcan rockets. This paragraph was especially interesting:

The next major milestone is determining what engine will replace the [Russian] RD-180. Washington-based Blue Origin is developing the BE-4, a privately funded Liquid Oxygen (Lox) and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) engine capable of 550,000 pounds of thrust (lbf); and California-based Aerojet Rocketdyne is creating the AR1, a government-supported Lox/Kerosene (RP-1) engine capable of 500,000lbf. Either replacement will require two engines to match the power of the RD-180. Blue Origin claims its engine, already four years into development, will be flight qualified by 2017, while Aerojet Rocketdyne, having started its development later, says the AR1 will be flight qualified by 2019. Bruno said ULA would make its decision soon.

“Sometime close to the end of the year we are going to down-select, and then move into our Critical Design Review (CDR) and start manufacturing the rocket,” he said.

I strongly suspect they want to go with Blue Origin’s engine, because it is more powerful, farther along in development, and almost certainly less expensive. The question will be whether pressure from Congress, which favors Aerojet Rocketdyne’s engine for pork barrel reasons (Congress is funding it), will force ULA to go with it instead.

Aerojet Rocketdyne pitches its AR1 rocket engine to reporters

The competition heats up: At a space conference this week Aerojet Rocketdyne pitched its AR1 rocket engine, still under development, as the ideal replacement for the Russian engine in the Atlas 5.

The U.S. Air Force awarded Aerojet Rocketdyne a contract in February worth up to $534 million over five years to certify and start delivering flight-ready AR1 engines in 2019. Aerojet Rocketdyne says it already has kicked in $70 million, with its total investment expected to exceed $250 million over the life of the contract.

Van Kleeck, vice president of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s advanced space and launch business unit, said the Air Force contract — the largest of several propulsion-related awards the service has made in recent months — is a sign of the Air Force’s confidence in the AR1’s ability to provide an expedient replacement for the RD-180 engine the Defense Department is under pressure from Congress to stop using.

United Launch Alliance, however, has anointed Blue Origin’s methane-fueled BE-4 engine as the front runner to replace the RD-180 by serving as the main engine for the Denver company’s next-generation rocket Vulcan.

“The AR1 engine can fly both on an Atlas and Vulcan and it’s the only engine that can do so,” Van Kleeck said.

Aerojet has been losing business to the newer commercial space companies like Blue Origin, and desperately needs to find a customer for the AR1. In the long run the Air Force contract won’t suffice, as it really is no more than government corporate welfare and cannot sustain them as a company. This press conference was part of that effort.

Vulcan passes first design review

The competition heats up: ULA’s Vulcan rocket has passed its first design review.

This is good news for ULA, but I wouldn’t get too excited. Announcements like this often have little to do with any real construction, and are often made to give the impression to the public and Congress and other investors that something is happening. Right now, all ULA is doing is pushing paper around. Only when they start cutting metal and testing real equipment will I consider Vulcan for real.

The article does provide an interesting tidbit. Despite protests that ULA hasn’t yet made a decision between Blue Origin or Aerojet Rocketdyne for the first stage engine of Vulcan, it was Blue Origin’s engine that they used for the design review, suggesting that this is the engine they plan on using in the real rocket.

ULA’s parent companies express caution about Vulcan

The competition heats up? The executives in charge of ULA’s parent companies, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, today expressed mixed support for the development of the Vulcan rocket, designed to replace the Atlas 5.

For more than a year, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been investing in the rocket on a quarter-by-quarter basis and the ULA board leaders said this week that the practice would continue. “We have to be prudent, disciplined stewards of any kind of investment,” Ambrose [Lockheed Martin] said. “Vulcan would be like any other investment decision.”

In September 2015, ULA’s leaders said a ban by Congress on the Russian RD-180 rocket engine, which powers ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket, was a leading driver behind the measured investment in Vulcan. But that issue was temporarily resolved in December, when Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) used a must-pass spending bill to eliminate the engine restrictions that had become law just weeks earlier.

Now, Ambrose pointed to “uncertainties” with launch policy, while Cooning [Boeing] said disagreements between lawmakers and the Air Force on the best approach for ending RD-180 dependence have given them pause, further justifying a “cautious and conservative approach.”

In other words, now that the law requiring a quick replacement of the Russian engine has been repealed, these executives feel less compunction to build Vulcan, something I had sensed in December and had commented on. As a result, they are telling us, in their tangled corporate ways, that they are not going to invest much of their own money on Vulcan, unless the government forks up a lot of cash for them to proceed.

XCOR wins Vulcan engine design contract

The competition heats up: ULA has awarded XCOR a design contract for building an upper stage rocket engine for the Vulcan rocket.

This is good news for XCOR, though there is one important caveat: A close reading of the press release at the link shows that the contract does not guarantee that ULA will use this engine in Vulcan. XCOR must deliver, and ULA must be satisfied with what they produce.

ULA buys 20 more Russian engines for Atlas 5

With the Congressional ban on buying Russian rocket engines lifted, ULA today wasted no time and immediately purchased 20 more engines from its Russian supplier to use in its Atlas 5 rocket.

I could also title this post “The Death of the Vulcan Rocket”. With at least 20 engines available, ULA no longer has any need to develop that new rocket. The Air Force is still willing to overpay for Atlas 5 launches, and they will now have enough engines to fly that rocket for probably 5 to 10 more years. Since there have already been indications that the bean-counters at ULA have been reluctant to fund Vulcan’s development, I expect them to now kill it.

This of course will be a very short-sighted decision. They might get some business with the Altas 5 and the Delta from the government for those few years, but this will not make them competitive in the new rocket industry. Eventually, they are going to go the way of the American steel industry, which failed to innovate and compete with foreign companies, and in the end lost its business to those foreign companies.

In the case of aerospace, however, the competition is coming from American companies. And that is wholly to the good.

ULA’s fight to use Russian engines continues

This article provides a detailed account of the political battle between ULA and Congress of its future use of Russian engines in its Atlas 5 rocket.

Congress has imposed a strict limit on the number of engines the company can use. ULA is still lobbying for an increase, claiming that the limit will mean that they will not be able to meet the government military launch needs for a few years when the engines on hand run out and its new American-built engines are not yet available.

In the long run I think this battle is irrelevant. What really matters is what it costs to launch a satellite, and ULA is simply not focused on reducing its costs. Consider this quote from the article, emphasis mine:

ULA has designed a new rocket dubbed Vulcan that features a U.S.-made engine, but this vehicle will not be available until around 2021, assuming the project gets funded — which is by no means a given.

They made a big deal earlier this year about how Vulcan will soon replace Atlas 5 at a lower cost, but it now appears that this was merely a public relations event. ULA wants someone else to pay for this new rocket, and thus has not yet committed any of its own money to begin actual development.

Other companies however are funding the development of their own new American-made rockets that will also be far cheaper to fly. Sooner rather than later our spendthrift Congress is going to mandate that the military use those cheaper rockets. If ULA doesn’t get moving it will be left in the dust, whether or not Congress allows it to use more Russian engines.

ULA and Orbital ATK ink new rocket motor contract

The competition heats up: ULA has signed a new contract with Orbital ATK to provide solid rocket motors for its Atlas 5 and Vulcan rockets.

This deal is another nail in the coffin of Aerojet Rocketdyne, as it strongly suggests that the corporate leadership at ULA is very uninterested in doing any business with that rocket engine builder. Recently they have been taking their business every where but to Aerojet.

Aerojet Rocketdyne lobbies its rocket engines to Congress and ULA

The competition heats up: Officials at Aerojet Rocketdyne yesterday lobbied hard for Congress and ULA to finance and buy their new AR-1 engine, designed to replace the Russian engines used in the Atlas 5 rocket.

More here, including the threat by those officials that the development of the engine could slip past 2019 if Congress doesn’t give the company more money.

The first comment at the bottom of the page of the first article above I think possibly outlines some of the reasons behind Aerojet Rocketdyne’s bid to buy ULA.

The development of the Blue Origin BE-4 is underway, and a launch vehicle like the proposed Vulcan would certainly be an asset to national security and commercial space development. But, as was stated, such a LNG/LO2 vehicle would need a different infrastructure to support it. ULA’s Atlas V is the most mature and reliable [launch vehicle] we have. The problem with it is a political one, because of its using the Russian RD-180 engine. From what has been published, plugging the BE-4 into an Atlas V is a non-starter; the BE-4 is meant for the Vulcan…if ULA can obtain funding on something more than a per-quarter schedule! Aerojet-Rocketdyne’s AR-1 would be a more logical choice to replace the RD-180, BUT…ULA won’t release the Interface Control Documents (ICD’s) to Aerojet-Rocketdyne. Hence, AR’s attempt to buy ULA.

ULA and Blue Origin sign new agreement

The competition heats up: ULA and Blue Origin have signed a new agreement expanding the production of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine for ULA’s new Vulcan rocket.

This agreement and the timing of its announcement, one day after news leaked that rocket engine manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne is making a bid to buy ULA, suggest that there are people in ULA that want to make sure the agreements with Blue Origin are set in stone should the purchase comes true.

A detailed look at ULA’s proposed Vulcan rocket

Link here. Not only do they intend to recover and reuse the first stage engines, the rocket’s upper stage will be designed with the ability to be refueled and function as a space tug once it has reached orbit.

Ah, the joy of competition. It accomplishes so much, so quickly. I hope we never return to the feel-good era of “international cooperation.”

Stratolaunch update

This article about Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch company notes that the payload the system will put in orbit is likely to be less than originally hoped.

Still to be determined are the manned and cargo craft Stratolaunch will eventually send to orbit or even the International Space Station, Beames said. Musk’s SpaceX, an initial partner, is no longer associated with the venture. The rocket produced by Orbital ATK Inc., which replaced SpaceX, will probably be smaller than the medium-lift vehicle with a 6,000 kilogram (13,000-pound) payload that Stratolaunch had initially planned, Beames said. “I think it’s more likely we’ll be targeting a smaller payload class,” Beames said. “We’re not announcing anything on that yet.”

Allen’s company, Vulcan Aerospace, is also demanding that ULA change the name of its new Vulcan rocket, just revealed yesterday.

ULA has dubbed its next generation rocket Vulcan

ULA has announced its plans for replacing the Delta and Atlas 5 rockets, dubbing its new rocket Vulcan.

They plan to develop Vulcan’s first stage first and use it initially on Atlas 5 rockets so they can replace the Atlas 5 Russian engines as soon as possible. Also, they plan to recover the Vulcan rocket’s engines by having them separate from the booster after use and then get captured in a mid-air before hitting the ground. (See the graphic at the link to see a launch profile.)

In watching the press conference, ULA officials made it very clear that they are focusing a lot of their effort on lowering the cost of the rocket.

“Vulcan” and “Cerberus” win the poll to name Pluto’s two unnamed moons.

“Vulcan” and “Cerberus” win the poll to name Pluto’s two unnamed moons. Key quote:

Vulcan was a late addition to the Pluto moon name contenders, and pulled into the lead after Shatner, building on his Capt. James T. Kirk persona, plugged the name on Twitter. Vulcan, the home planet of Kirk’s alien-human hybrid first officer Spock, is not just a fictional world in the Star Trek universe. It is also the name of the god of fire in Roman mythology, and officials at SETI added the sci-fi favorite to the ballot for that reason.

William Shatner proposes naming Pluto’s two unnamed moons Romulus and Vulcan.

William Shatner proposes naming Pluto’s two unnamed moons Romulus and Vulcan.

Astronomers running the Pluto moon naming campaign accepted Vulcan, adding it to the list a day after Shatner suggested it, but Romulus didn’t make the cut. “Mr. Shatner’s second suggestion, Romulus, has a bit of a problem because it is already the name of a moon,” Mark Showalter, an astronomer involved with the competition, wrote in a blog on the Pluto Rocks website on Tuesday. “Romulus, along with his brother Remus, are the names of the moons of the asteroid 87 Silvia. They were discovered by a team led by my good colleague Franck Marchis, now a senior scientist at the SETI Institute.”