Space Symposium Launch Vehicle Panel

The 31st Space Symposium is taking place all week in Colorado Springs. It’s already generated some news, with ULA unveiling its new launch vehicle [here and here], Paul Allen demanding the company change the rocket’s name, and Rocket Lab showing off its electric motor.

I wasn’t able to attend this year, but I’ve been monitoring the events via Twitter.  Today’s most interesting session appears to have been a launch vehicle panel that included Aerojet Rocketdyne, Arianespace, Blue Origin, Orbital ATK, SpaceX and ULA.

There were a couple of interesting story lines, with the competition between ULA and SpaceX being most prominent. SpaceX’s success has led ULA to develop plans for a new launch vehicle called Vulcan, which will replace the company’s Atlas V and Delta IV boosters.  The first stage engines will be reusable.

ULA is pursuing a dual path for its first stage. Blue Origin’s LOX/methane engine is the primary option. However, ULA is also paying Aerojet Rocketdyne to develop its AR-1 motor as a backup if Blue Origin runs into trouble. ULA expects to down select to one option at the end of 2016.

Meanwhile, Orbital ATK has completed its investigation of what caused the explosion of its Antares launch vehicle in October.  The company has identified a problem in a bearing of the AJ-26 turbo-pump as the main cause.

A summary of the panel discussion via Twitter follows.


Salvatore T. “Tory” Bruno
President and CEO
United Launch Alliance (ULA)

Ronald J. Grabe
Executive Vice President & President, Flight Systems Group
Orbital ATK

Robert Meyerson
Blue Origin

Clayton Mowry
Arianespace, Inc.

Gwynne Shotwell
President and Chief Operating Officer

Julie A. Van Kleeck
Vice President, Advanced Space and Launch Business Unit
Aerojet Rocketdyne

Tory Bruno — United Launch Alliance

  • Room for competition for military launches but USAF acquisition strategy needs to be rethought
  • Need multiple providers to launch national security payloads
    Multiple ways to approach problems of reusability, lowering launch costs
  • Did trades on various options
  • Reusability is more of an economic challenge than a technical challenge
  • Promises to make launch service as easy as buying a car – details to come
  • Vulcan will be less than $100 million – not saying how much less
  • Blue Origin’s BE-4 primary path for first stage, in development already for more than 3 years
  • Rocketry is hard, engine is hardest part – need a backup plan
  • Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 engine is backup engine to BE-4
  • Great work done on AR-1 engine already
  • AR-1 engine not interchangeable with Atlas V RD-180 engine
  • Sees utility in small satellites but not hockey stick style growth

Gwynne Shotwell — SpaceX

  • SpaceX expects to capture 50 percent of commercial launch marketplace with Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy
  • Large increase in potential commercial launch market
  • Reusability will increase Falcon 9 reliability
  • Reusability needs to built into the design process
  • SpaceX will be in position of being incumbent by time Vulcan debuts in 2019
  • Company will continue to innovate and improve Falcons
  • Doesn’t think there’s a market for a dedicated small satellite launcher
  • European Vega small satellite launcher is expensive

Meyerson — Blue Origin

  • ULA investment in BE-4 capped, with Blue Origin handling cost overruns
  • BE-4 can be ready by 2017 with no need for government funding
  • Blue Origin will look at government’s RFP for RD-180 engine
  • Bid depends on contracting mechanism used
  • Testing engines yesterday and today
  • BE-4 engine would be a “great option” for Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket

Van Kleeck — Aerojet Rocketdyne

  • AR-1 engine could be fully certified by 2019 with sufficient government funding
  • AR1 is as close to a form fit engine to replace Atlas V RD-180
  • AR-1 is engine we believe country needs

Grabe – Orbital ATK

  • Antares failure resulted from a problem in a bearing in the AJ-26 engine turbopump
  • Company will be submitting final report to FAA within days
  • Eying Antares in NASA science and commercial missions
  • Russian RD-181 engine was the only option for Antares
  • Interested in Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 when available if it fits cost models

Mowry — Arianespace

  • Questioned if reusability is supported by business case
  • Ariane 6 baseline does not include reusability, but could if the business case supports it
  • Vega is not an expensive launch vehicle