Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Vulcan Rocket

With SpaceX's Falcon family of rockets delivering on cheap, reliable access to orbit, and with the real possibility of even cheaper (reusable) rockets in the near future, the Delta and Atlas rockets operated by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) are obsolete. There's no future for a launch service that cannot compete at the new price levels.

Unfortunately for ULA, once the Falcon rockets are reusable, there's no way an expendable rocket can compete on price. ULA must find a way to make their rockets reusable. But landing rockets (in a way that they are immediately available for a new launch, as opposed to needing months of expensive refurbishment like the Space Shuttle or its SRBs) is a very hard technical problem, and ULA is way, way behind SpaceX in solving it.

Which brings us to today's news: ULA has announced the Vulcan rocket, which they hope will fly within four years.

Cheap, reusable rockets don't just come together within four years though, and ULA has been sitting on their hands for years hoping SpaceX would just go away. In order to meet this timeline, ULA has basically given up on making an engine or learning how to land a rocket.

The engines for the Vulcan are going to be made by Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos' rocket company that has been working on building a reusable system for at least ten years now. This is consistent at least with the current Atlas rocket - ULA doesn't make those engines either, but buys them from the Russians. Despite the storied history of Boeing and Lockheed, their institutional expertise at building rocket engines has been allowed to atrophy and die over the last several decades, and Vulcan will not revive it.

Secondly, the Vulcan won't even land, Instead its engine module (the most expensive part) will detach from the main body, use an inflatable aerobrake shield to reenter the atmosphere, then parachutes, and then be snatched out of the air by a really big helicopter before it crashes into the ground. If that sounds more like a circus trick than a reliable mode of transport, you're not wrong. The comparison between this system, and the Falcon 9's powered and steerable descents, could not be more amusing. ULA is desperate to save and reuse the main boost engines, and the best they can do is this Rube Goldberg contraption.

And despite all that effort, ULA's cost target for a Vulcan launch is $100 million. And that's four years from now, assuming everything is on time and on budget. Compare that to $61 million for a Falcon 9 today or $90 million for the (upcoming but even more capable) Falcon Heavy. And those costs will be cut in half, at least, once SpaceX licks the reusability problem.

This desperate bid for technical relevance by ULA would be hilarious if it wasn't such an inglorious end to America's first space-age companies.

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