By Jerry Yu ’19
The Overlooked Workhorse in Space: United Launch Alliance
It’s Q1 of 2019, which means we have reached the one-year anniversary of the first successful Falcon Heavy launch and landing by SpaceX. Thanks to the marketing machine that is Elon Musk, the name of this innovative aerospace company is known across the US and the world. However, many people have started to overlook one of the most prominent competitors: the United Launch Alliance.
The United Launch Alliance was created in 2006 as a joint venture between Boeing Integrated Defense Systems and Lockheed Martin Space Systems, carrying their legacy of over half a century condensed in two rockets: the Delta IV and Atlas V. Despite their prominent figure in the industry, the public tends to overlook their presence and ambitions.
SpaceX created history with its Falcon Heavy Rocket by landing it on land or ships and created even more disruptive plans—the BFR, a completely-reusable rocket that has a massive load and full reusability. However, according to ULA experts, they need a better accountant—the team at ULA believes that with their innovations to the next Vulcan rocket, they can easily make their price more advantageous against SpaceX by taking smaller strides. "We've each made market forecasts, and if we're right, our solution will be economically advantageous," Bruno told CBS News in March. "If I'm wrong and they're right, then theirs will."
And here are two key features they have put their bid on:
1. ACES, or Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage
Vulcan will feature cryogenic oxygen and hydrogen fuels instead of RP-1 kerosene that will be used in SpaceX’s Raptor engines. LH2 and oxygen fuels are more resilient in space, making them less likely to freeze in space. This means that the new upper stage can stay even in standby in space, refueled, and put to work more than once, while the second stage of the Falcon Heavy becomes space junk after one use. The new upper stage is designed around this fuel selection: they use this fuel for generators and newly designed reaction-control systems, effectively decreasing the number of batteries and other types of fuel required, while the older designs will have to deal with other fuels like Monomethylhydrazine used in RCS thrusters (small thrusters that adjust the rocket’s attitude).
2. SMART reusable engines: Sensible, Modular, Autonomous Return Technology.
SpaceX rockets don’t last forever. In fact, they have to be significantly refurbished after every single launch to stay in shape and avoid terrible accidents, especially around their grid fins responsible for controlling the rocket in the atmosphere. ULA hopes to work around this by only reusing rocket boosters—the most costly part in a rocket. Meanwhile, only reusing boosters mean a lower research cost and risk factor for ULA since compared to an entire rocket, the re-entry of rather light boosters means they can fully utilize existing technologies like inflatable aero shells to protect boosters. In order to avoid weight wasted to carry landing legs and additional fuel, ULA plans to use a parachute and a hook to “land” the booster. Or, more precisely, utilize a helicopter to pick up the slowly-dropping boosters after the parachute is deployed.
With these plans, ULA hopes to create an affordable and sustainable way to launch heavy payloads and mine asteroids. However, SpaceX is not eating it - Musk would rather eat his hat "with a side of mustard" if Vulcan "flies a national security spacecraft before 2023."