COLORADO SPRINGS — United Launch Alliance intends to incorporate a reusable main engine and re-ignitable upper stage in its newly dubbed Vulcan rocket, which was unveiled here April 13 on the eve of the 31st Space Symposium.

This new rocket is the company’s path to substantially reduce its cost to launch — a critical factor as the company’s monopoly over national security launches is eroding — and compete against SpaceX, which is expected to break into the military launch market with the U.S. Air Force certification of its Falcon 9 by mid-year.

Company CEO Tory Bruno says the Vulcan’s per-unit cost will fall under $100 million (configurations will vary between 4 and 5-meter versions). Cost for the Vulcan Heavy, which will rely on the largest of the rockets, new solid-rocket boosters and be married with a new upper stage, will be under $200 million, says George Sowers, vice president of advanced programs at ULA. The company’s current Atlas V 401 costs about $164 million (under the Air Force’s 36-core bulk buy) and a Delta IV Heavy is a staggering $400 million.

A monopoly since 2006, when Lockheed Martin and Boeing consolidated their Atlas V and Delta IV operations, the company has not had to compete on cost. Delta IVs are not sold commercially and Atlas Vs are only sold rarely for commercial missions.

Bruno, however, says that is going to change. The first missions for Vulcan are likely to be commercial, he says, as the company pursues a path for certification for national security payloads.

ULA submitted its statement of intent to the U.S. Air Force to get Vulcan certified in February; a cooperative research and development agreement (CRDA) is expected to be signed in August, says Mike Peller, Vulcan program manger. It will outline the steps ULA must take to achieve certification to launch sensitive military and intelligence payloads.

Bruno says ULA has included the Air Force in its design reviews thus far in hopes of easing the process toward certification. SpaceX Founder and Chief Technology Officer Elon Musk criticized the Air Force for taking too long to certify the Falcon 9 v1.1; the process was slated to be complete at the end of 2014 but was punted to mid 2015. SpaceX developed Falcon 9 commercially, though, without any Air Force insight into the program as it evolved until 2013, when the company signed a CRDA to get its rocket certified.

The statement of intent for Vulcan certification includes paths for the use of both the primary main engine — the Blue Origin BE-4 — and ULA’s backup, the Aerojet Rocketdyne AR-1, Bruno says. The BE-4 is slated to enter the market in 2017, a full two years earlier than the AR-1, slated for 2019. Bruno says he will conduct a downselect between the two within the next 18 months.

In parallel with this work, Bruno is planning to release a request for proposals for a new, more effective solid-rocket strap-on booster design this year. Competitors would be Aerojet Rocketdyne and Orbital ATK. Up to six strap-ons can be used for added lift on Vulcan.

The path for Vulcan has four major steps. The first is the aforementioned new engine and rocket system; the second is a new upper stage, the third introduces reusability for the main engine, and the last step introduces what ULA is calling “distributed operations” in orbit.

Initially, Vulcan will continue to use the Centaur upper stage, which flies on the Atlas V, for continued support of Boeing’s CST-100 commercial crew vehicle, and potentially Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser or other vehicles, Sowers says.

Meanwhile, ULA will complete development of the new Advanced Cryogenic Upper Stage (ACES) that grew out of space depot work conducted earlier in the Obama administration that called for in-space refueling.

Bruno says the new upper stage will provide far more flexibility for orbital insertion of payloads. ACES is designed to maximize the use of the cryogenic propellant carried in extra large upper stage tanks, some of which is wasted in today’s operations. With ACES, ULA plans to use 1-4 internal combustion engines to boil off hydrogen and oxygen to repressurize the tanks and make maximum use of the remaining cryogenic propellant for greater flexibility in re-ignition. Bruno says the concept buys the gift of time by allowing the upper stage to remain functional longer. He also says the design offers the opportunity for virtually limitless reignition in orbit.

Use of this new system also would eliminate the need to rely on hydrazine thrusters. Sowers concedes the concept requires improved insulation over what is used on Centaur.

ULA has partnered with Roush Motors, an American race car engine company, to develop an internal combustion engine able to burn hydrogen and oxygen. Sowers describes it as about the size of lawn mower engine.

The new approach to handling propellant will feed one of three engines Bruno says are in contention for the new upper state. They include the Blue Origin BE-3U (U for upper stage), a modified Aerojet Rocketdyne RL-10 (now used on the Centaur) and an XR-5K18 piston-driven cryogenic rocket engine in development by XCOR Aerospace.

Bruno says were it not for the national urgency of weaning the U.S. off its reliance on the Atlas V’s Russian-made RD-180 engine – urgency underscored last year after Moscow annexed Crimea – the company would have focused first on the upper stage. ULA hopes to fly ACES in 2019, Bruno says.

The next step is to refine the reusability of the main engine, Bruno says. The concept calls for the use of a hypersonic heat shield ULA is designing with NASA to protect the engine as it re-enters the atmosphere and slow its re-entry. Once slowed, the engine will deploy a steerable parafoil, which will guide it to a rendezvous point with a helicopter. The helicopter then will use a hook to pluck the engine from its descent. This is not unlike the retrieval operations for film canisters employed on early spy satellites.

Finally, the last stage calls for use of those large propellant tanks in orbit. Sowers says they can loiter in orbit and service assets also orbiting to extend satellite lives.

Peller says production of parts for Vulcan will begin in 2017; production of parts for the BE-4 already has begun.
Bruno hopes to retire the single-core Delta IV in 2018 and retain the Delta IV Heavy only until the Vulcan Heavy is ready, likely around 2023 or 2024.

Meanwhile, Bruno says operations will continue with Atlas V and Delta IV for national security launches. ULA has 29 Russian RD-180s on order, two of which have been delivered. He says the company’s “launch capabilities” contract — dubbed a “subsidy” by SpaceX boosters because it funds ULA’s workforce and infrastructure — runs out in 2019. Bruno says there has been no talk of prematurely ending that contract, but former Pentagon procurement chief John Young has suggested it should be truncated to level the playing field for forthcoming competitions with SpaceX.

In the future, however, Bruno says the company will shift to a more transparent pricing structure that incorporate the cost of both the hardware and services into one number. He says details of the sales strategy will be forthcoming in June.