ULA pushing forward with Vulcan amid concerns about engine delays

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In just a few months, the U.S. Space Force is expected to reveal which two rocket companies have been selected to launch dozens of national security satellites the United States plans to send to orbit between 2022 and 2027.

For incumbent United Launch Alliance, losing the competition is not an option. Six years into his tenure as ULA’s president and CEO, Tory Bruno’s attention is focused on Vulcan Centaur, a still-in-development launch vehicle the Denver-based company needs to successfully bring to fruition in order to have a chance to win one of two contracts the Space Force will award this summer under the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement.

Six years into his tenure as ULA’s president and CEO, Tory Bruno’s attention is focused on Vulcan Centaur. Credit: United Launch Alliance

The Phase 2 competition is do-or-die for ULA, which was established in 2006 as a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture to consolidate their struggling launch businesses. For nearly a decade, ULA had a monopoly on launching national security payloads for the U.S. Air Force, but those days are done. SpaceX beat ULA on price to capture a portion of the national security market with its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets and is seen as a strong contender for a Phase 2 award expected to cover approximately 30 missions.

Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman — both of which, like ULA, are developing new rockets — also are fighting for a share of upcoming national security launch contracts.

For Bruno, job No. 1 is to get Vulcan ready for its maiden launch, which he says will happen in early 2021. This will be a critical first step toward the certification of Vulcan for national security missions. In an interview with SpaceNews, Bruno says he is optimistic but not taking anything for granted.

When do you expect the Space Force to announce the winners of Phase 2?

We’re looking forward to an award soon. This is a big acquisition for the launch industry that will set up the next five years of launches with the two providers. We’re answering questions from the Space and Missile Systems Center. Like with any government acquisition, they read your proposal and they have questions. That’s what’s happening now.

Vulcan was originally expected to fly in 2020 but the Blue Origin BE-4 engine has taken longer than planned. ULA needs two production-quality engines for Vulcan’s first flight. What’s the latest?

Most of Vulcan’s major components except the main engine are in production and will fly on Atlas 5 this coming year. Yes, the engine is the hardest part. It is the most intense part of any development program. Blue Origin is working it pretty hard. And we are watching everything like a hawk.

One piece of good news is that Vulcan’s GEM 63 solid rocket motors are qualified and in production. They will be flying on Atlas later this year. That was a big sigh of relief. Vulcan’s 5.4-meter composite fairing made by Ruag also will fly this year. We have seen prototypes and they look great. The vehicle software is on track. About 70 to 80% of the software in Vulcan will transition from Atlas. The rest is new development.

So the BE-4 engine is the high-risk item in the program. What if Blue Origin can’t deliver on time?

We’ve been working hand in glove with them and we’re feeling pretty confident that we’re going to have the engines in time. They have gotten over the big technical challenges this past year. They’re still finishing the development of the engine, tuning the powerpack. That’s a pretty powerful and complicated machine in itself. It generates 75,000 horsepower, which is what it takes to run a cruise ship. It’s a pretty big engineering feat. It’s in tests now.

Have you set a delivery deadline for BE-4?

There’s actually a deadline now, and it is in 2021. Can’t be more precise than that. We’re confident we’ll be there. Keep in mind this is America’s first oxygen-rich, liquefied natural gas-fueled staged combustion rocket engine. And methane as fuel is novel. This is the largest methane engine that has ever been fired on a test stand probably by a factor of a thousand. I expected them to have a lot of challenges in the development. I put a lot of margin into our side of the schedule so they would have the freedom to work through those challenges without impacting us. I added almost two years to the schedule because I knew there would be challenges. I’ve done this before more than once in my career. I appreciated their ambition but my experience told me to build years of margin into the schedule.

If ULA wins a Phase 2 contract, will Vulcan be certified and ready to start flying national security missions by 2022?

We will be able to get Vulcan certified after two flights. Our first launch is a lunar lander for Astrobotic, a NASA contractor that will deliver payloads to the moon. The second flight will take Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station. Typically, three flights are required for national security certification but we’re able to certify on two flights because we agreed to give the Air Force full and open access to our vehicle development. They come to all our meetings, receive data as we go and give us feedback.

Blue Origin is not only ULA’s engine supplier, they’re also competing against Vulcan with their New Glenn vehicle. They continue to push for the Space Force to select three providers instead of two. You are opposed to that. Why not let more players compete?

Projections for the launch market worldwide continue to be flat. In the near term, there will be about 20 to 25 launches a year for which U.S. companies will be able to compete. To stay financially healthy, providers need eight to 12 launches a year. That means the market can only support two U.S. providers, not three. If the Space Force selected three, it would be harmful to the industry. They can only have two and have those be healthy, do a good job and survive to finish their contracts.

Blue Origin argues that Phase 2 creates a duopoly and discourages companies that didn’t win from investing in next-generation technologies that the military needs. Are they wrong?

The national security launch program does not end after Phase 2. It’s followed by Phase 3 in just a few years. That’s very important. Anyone who didn’t get selected in Phase 2 doesn’t have to wait very long to enter the competition for Phase 3. The government already has put out a request for information for Phase 3 to understand what’s the art of the possible. Space Force hasn’t made Phase 2 awards and already we’re working on Phase 3. I anticipate there will be another open competition for another block of missions. That will allow providers who didn’t make Phase 2 to keep going and be available. It’s very important that Phase 2 and Phase 3 be heel to toe.

Artist’s concept of a ULA Vulcan Centaur jettisoning spent strap-on boosters on its way to orbit. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Speaking of the future, what are ULA’s plans for reusability? SpaceX continues to set the pace with its ability to land boosters and reuse them. Will ULA go down that path?

We continue to study ways to recover the engines But we won’t have an answer until after we’ve had a chance to fly Vulcan multiple times. In order to do an engine recovery, you have to design a separation system for the engine and a re-entry system. In our concept, we don’t want to expose the engine to hypersonic reentry heating on the way back. We intend to reenter the engine behind a heat shield. In order to get it right, we want to fly the rocket several times and collect data on all those environments. We’ll fly some number of missions, I don’t know how many yet, before we feel confident to finish the development of the engine recovery system.

Would ULA even consider trying to land boosters?

We are still not convinced flying back boosters is economically viable. We’re still watching it and I encourage [SpaceX President] Gwynne Shotwell and her team to keep at it. If it becomes economically sustainable, then we would consider doing it as well. It looks like it’s very difficult right now. We’ve made the deliberate choice to start somewhere else where the hurdle is lower. It’s easier to save money when recovering only the engines than from something more complex like full booster flyback. But we’re not ruling out any form of reuse. For us it’s about the economics. I don’t have an imperative in our business, for example, to land on Mars with a booster and take off again like Elon Musk has talked about. We only look through the lens of whether it saves money. Can you do the refurbishment and recycle of the booster fast enough to make it practical and to actually reduce the size of the fleet you need? When you are just recovering engines, it’s much easier to hit goals like that and that’s why we’re starting there.

But, hey, this is the beauty of competition and innovation, different people trying different things. The marketplace eventually reveals what’s going to work, and people tend to go there. Whatever works, we’ll follow it.

This article originally appeared in the March 16, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.