ULA feels no schedule pressure to select Vulcan engine

by

WASHINGTON — The chief executive of United Launch Alliance said Nov. 9 that he doesn’t feel any urgency to select a main engine for his company’s next-generation Vulcan rocket, despite an impending deadline for an Air Force launch competition.

During a question-and-answer session after his speech at a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon, Bruno declined to give an update on the competition between the BE-4 engine from Blue Origin and the AR1 from Aerojet Rocketdyne to power the first stage of the Vulcan.

ULA has long indicted its preferred choice is the BE-4, but wanted to wait until the engine completed a series of test firings to confirm it would be suitable. Blue Origin announced Oct. 19 it had carried out the first hotfire test of the engine, but has not disclosed if it has carried out any additional tests to date. Bruno didn’t comment on that test beyond the statement ULA issued at the time congratulating Blue Origin for the achievement.

The test comes as companies face a Nov. 20 deadline to reply to a request for proposals from the U.S. Air Force for its Launch Services Agreement program. That effort is designed to support the development of new Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle-class rockets, including initial launches needed to obtain certification. The Air Force plans to make up to three awards through cost-sharing agreements.

Despite that impending deadline, Bruno said there was no hurry to select an engine, based on assessment of work needed to complete the vehicle in time to meet the Air Force’s certification schedules. “I am not concerned about I would say is schedule pressure” for selecting an engine to meet that timeline, he said. “We have time to execute our process.”

Bruno also said he was not concerned about getting approvals from ULA’s two owners, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to continue development of Vulcan. “We generate our own operating cash and expenses and investment from our ongoing business,” he said. “Our parents — our owners — generously allow us to invest in this new platform rather than simply turn that money back into cash in their pockets.”

Bruno declined to specify how much internal investment was going into Vulcan, but noted the company has consistently been profitable. “I might hazard to argue that ULA is one of the very few space launch companies that has consistently earned a reasonable profit,” he said.

He reiterated that ULA’s approach to reusability for Vulcan remained recovering the first stage engines, rather than landing the entire first stage. That contrasts with SpaceX, which now routinely lands the first stage of its Falcon 9, and Blue Origin, which plans to land the first stage of its upcoming New Glenn orbital launch vehicle.

Bruno said it appeared to ULA that recovering just the engines, which account for most of the value of the stage, made more sense than the entire stage, as in some cases performance requirements for a mission will make it impossible to land the stage. “We’re going to find out in the marketplace which is true,” he said.