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Aerospace companies compete to reuse rockets

Posted April 16, 2015

United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, unveiled its Next Generation Rocket System (NGLS) at the 31st Space Symposium conference in Colorado Springs, Colo., this week.

Plans for the NGLS rocket family, clad in an American flag motif, were displayed in medium to heavy-lift configurations in a roadmap through to 2035. Maiden launch is planned for 2019.

ULA narrowed down a list of 400 naming ideas from its 3,400 employees to just a few, including “Eagle” and “Freedom” for public voting. The winning name Vulcan announced this week was immediately criticized by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s aerospace company, pointing to the trademark owned by his aerospace company Vulcan Inc.

While the choice was no doubt influenced by last month’s death of Leonard Nimoy, Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, has astronomy roots far beyond Star Trek.

French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier studied Mercury’s motions, but the planet didn’t match up with Newtonian Physics as expected. Le Verrier theorized the existence of an additional planet, he dubbed “Vulcan,” orbiting between Mercury and the sun to explain those motions. Mercury’s motions were ultimately explained by Einstein’s theory of relativity (Google “Perihelion precession of Mercury” for the gory details).

More recently, the Kepler mission discovered a rocky planet orbiting a sun twice as old as ours 560 light years away. Unsatisfied with the initial name Kepler-10b, the mission’s principal investigator Natalie Batalha began calling it “Vulcan” owing to its position 23 times closer to its sun than Mercury is to ours. A 2015 paper in the Astrophysical Journal extended the name to an entire class of “Vulcan planets” which form close to their host star.

ULA’s new class of rockets is planned to replace their hugely successful Atlas 5 and Delta 4. Design efforts, the first in decades, are estimated at $2 billion for the booster stage alone. ULA has been working with Blue Origin, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos’ aerospace company, to develop the methane-fueled BE-4 engine, adding another $1 billion in development. A pair of BE-4’s will replace the Russian built RD-180 engine which while very reliable is politically unpopular. Congress has banned use of the RD-180 on vehicles launching national security missions beginning in 2019.

ULA’s Monday announcement came the same day competitor SpaceX made it’s 6th cargo flight to the International Space Station and a third attempt to land its Falcon 9 booster on an offshore platform. While the attempt failed, it further narrowed the gap between discarding the first stage of each launch into the Pacific Ocean (in the case of Vandenberg Calif. launches bound for polar earth-observing orbits) or the Atlantic (for Florida launches bound for lunar or planetary destinations as well as other Earth orbits) and reducing the cost of lifting payloads (and people) by reusing the most expensive components of the launch, powerful engines used in the first stage.

While SpaceX continues to test recovery of the entire first stage, ULA’s plan focuses on the most expensive part of a launch, the main engine. ULA calls their approach Sensible, Modular, Autonomous Return Technology (SMART). After the first and second stage separate, the Aft Thruster Structure (ATS) containing the main engines will jettison from the booster body. The ATS will then deploy an inflatable heatshield to slow it through speeds below the speed of sound. A series of parachutes will then further slow descent in preparation for capture in mid air by a helicopter. Once back on the ground, engines would then be safed, refurbished, tested and flown again in an overall effort to reduce cost to launch. Launches from Cape Canaveral would likely be captured somewhere north of Puerto Rico. The booster body sans engines will burn up in the atmosphere as it has in the past.

Mid-air capture may sound like science fiction, but there is some precedent for the process actually working as well as some for it failing completely. In the 1960s, reconnaissance satellites of the Corona program returned images not digitally but in film canisters returned from orbit via parachutes and recovered by Lockheed HC-130 and Fairchild C-119 fixed wing aircraft at an altitude of 15,000 feet using a loop of nylon rope. Crews drilled the very manual skill of capturing the payloads frequently and reportedly became very good at it.

As digital imaging technology evolved and film canisters became a thing of the past, mid-air capture skillsets languished. When the need arose again, NASA looked to Hollywood stunt pilots to capture the Genesis return capsule during its return to Earth in 2004. Genesis would return with fragile samples of highly charged subatomic particles of “solar wind.” When the capsule entered the atmosphere over Oregon at nearly 25,000 mph, the parachute failed to deploy. Those helicopter pilots never had a chance. Air resistance did significantly slow the craft but it stilled slammed into the Utah desert floor at 193 mph. Though the capsule was contaminated when it broke, some plates survived and particles were recovered. Stardust, a similar mission that collected samples from the coma of a comet, returned successfully, but ballistically, without the need for mid-air capture.

ULA’s announcement this week was not a huge surprise to the aerospace industry. In 2007 the company tested capture of a 750-lb dummy load in the California desert. The load was dropped from a helicopter, a parafoil deployed and a single engine light helicopter captured the load in mid-air. ULA and contractor Vertigo reported on the tests at the 2008 American Institute of Aeronautics conference.

Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.


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