Inside ULA’s New Vulcan Rocket

Artist's conception of Vulcan rocket. (Credit; ULA)
Artist’s conception of Vulcan rocket. (Credit; ULA)

ULA unveiled its new Vulcan rocket during the 31st Space Symposium in Colorado Springs yesterday. CEO Tory Bruno called it a game-changing launch vehicle that would lower costs, advance re-usability and provide an architecture for the exploration and exploitation of cis-lunar space. It is set to debut in 2019.

So, what makes this system different from SpaceX’s Falcon launch vehicles and anything else that’s out there? Continue reading to find out.

Instead of trying to recover the first stage of the booster the way SpaceX is attempting, ULA would separate the first-stage engines and recover them by using a hypersonic decelerator, parachute, parafoil and helicopter. The engines would then be attached to a new stage for reuse.


ULA can save two Blue Origin BE-4 engines that make up 65 percent of the booster’s cost. Engineers will re-certify the engines for another flight instead of having to re-certify an entire stage.

Credit: ULA
Credit: ULA

The two BE-4 engines will burn methane and liquid oxygen and generate 1.1 million pounds of thrust, making the stage more powerful than ULA’s current Atlas V and Delta IV boosters. The stage will feature stretch fuel tanks to allow for more propellant. Up to six solid-rocket boosters can be attached depending upon the payload.

Credit: ULA
Credit: ULA

ULA plans to phase out the use of its venerable Centaur upper stage by 2023. To replace it, engineers have gone back to the drawing board….

Credit: ULA
Credit: ULA

The advanced cryogenic upper stage will feature reusable engines designed for unlimited restarts in space. The stage is designed to be refueled in space and can serve as a space tug or propellant depot. It will be powered by an internal combustion engine.

Vulcan rocket (Credit; ULA)

Vulcan will include components and features from the Atlas V and Delta IV. The rocket can be fitted with four and five meter fairings depending upon the size of the satellite to be launched.

Credit: ULA
Credit: ULA

Vulcan’s cost, which start at less than $100 million per flight, will be higher than for SpaceX’s Falcon 9. However, the rocket will be more powerful.

ULA also says the architecture will be flexible, providing an in-space transportation architecture that can be used for operations in cis-lunar space and beyond. The system can support lunar bases, asteroid mining, commercial facilities and other uses of space.



  • DavidR2015

    Nice to see someone other than Spacex, taking an approach to reusability that is different to Falcon 9 and the Shuttle. When different approaches are tried, they can be compared to see which is best.

  • windbourne

    Totally agree.
    Personally, I do not think that they have it right on this one.
    However, I am intrigued by their second stage.

    In addition, does anybody know how much to LEO?

  • DavidR2015

    The second stage, is the project that XCOR is working on with them, isn’t it?

  • Chad Overton

    I’m surprised know one in the press conference asked more about the combustion engine in the ACES second stage. It seems like a big risk for ULA to use a technology that has never been used in space. How will the thermal environment work with that engine as far as lubricants, fuel and materials? I mean, as far as internal combustion engines go, has anyone operated or tested one in such an extreme thermal environment?

  • Larry J

    The articles I’ve read say that ULA is looking at three possible engines for the ACES upper stage. One is the legacy RL-10. Another is the Blue Origins BE-3. The third is the one that XCOR is developing.

    The RL-10 is proven technology but is reportedly very expensive. From what I’ve heard, it’s largely hand-made due to how the cooling tubes are brazed.

    The BE-3 is available now. It’s several times more powerful than the RL-10 but has a deep throttling capability. At it’s lowest throttle settings, it’s roughly the same thrust as the RL-10. I have no other information about the BE-3 such as the weight, Isp, or cost.

    XCOR’s engine uses a novel piston pump technology. They’ve tested a 2,500 scale version of the engine and it seems to work well. Of the three engines, this one might end up costing the least but may have the highest technical risk simply because it hasn’t been tested yet.

    It’s good to have options.

  • RobH

    Okay, I have to call bullshit on this plan: A HELICOPTER is going to swoop in and capture, in mid-air, conservatively, 20,000 pounds of rocket engines. That pretty much maxes out a showroom-perfect Sikorsky Skycrane in perfect weather with no margin at all. I call shenanigans.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    It’s gonna be burning boiled off hydrogen, so that’s won’t be much over -250 C. I’m sure they can test the external temps before flight – such as sit it in a LH2 bath at -270 C.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “Vulcan’s cost, which start at less than $100 million per flight, will be higher than for SpaceX’s Falcon 9. However, the rocket will be more powerful.”

    This is not accurate. The base Vulcan (somewhere less than $100 million): “The two BE-4 engines will burn methane and liquid oxygen and generate 1.1 million pounds of thrust…”. The $61.5 million F9 makes 1.3 million pounds. The upgrade this summer increases that to 1.6 million. So the “more powerful” versions of Vulcan (with solid boosters) will be even more expensive.

  • mzungu

    Chinnok shown can do 28000 lbs cago.

  • Hug Doug

    is the weight involved what is bothering you? a Chinook is shown in their artwork, and one of those can lift 28,000 lb.

  • stoffer

    it is puzzling why did they decide to use an ICE, not fuel cells, which would probably be more reliable. Mechanical energy for reliquifecation would be provided by a light electrical motor.

  • Larry J

    According to Wikipedia, the dry weight of an RD-180 is just over 12,000 pounds. I’ve seen no mention of what the dry weight of two BE-4 engines will be but as a SWAG, I’ll estimate about 15,000 pounds. Throw in some support structure and perhaps we’re talking about 18,000 pounds, give or take.

    There are some helicopters with greater hoist capacity than the Skycrane. According to this source, the CH-47 Chinook has a central hook rated at 12,000 kg. The actual lift capacity is around 20,000 pounds. The new CH-53K King Stallion is even more powerful and might be a better alternative since it can operate easily off of ships.

  • Sam Moore

    ICE exhaust provides free propellant settling thrust, an equivalent stage with fuel cells would need to keep the separate ullage thrusters.

  • windbourne

    I have been thinking about this, and I have to say that I think the ULA is screwing up again. They are in the trouble that they are, because they outsourced so much on Atlas and Delta. Both were far too expensive, though the Delta at least offered great capabilities. But, for the last 10 years, ULA has had a monopoly, ran it like one, and ran up massive costs.
    Now, here is a chance to do interesting things, but again, they have outsourced all of the key technology, and their price / launch is already greater than SpaceX’s. And as such, their $/KGs has to be MUCH higher than F9s, and esp more than FH.
    Yes, they have the engine being re-used, but it seems to me that the re-use of the engine will lead to it being even more expensive, while ULA will become launch rate limited by the numbers of stages that they can build.
    Note that some will claim that SpaceX’s price will go up because they will build fewer. I suspect that is wrong. Basically, SpaceX will continue at their max rate, but will fly each stage at least 10x.

  • windbourne

    look. Look at my left hand, not my right hand.

  • ReusablesForever

    Let’s review the concept as I understand it: the engine module is separated from the stage, then a “hypercone,” which may contain the heat shield, is deployed and then discarded; then a ringsail parachute is deployed and then discarded; then a parafoil is deployed and maybe recovered; then a helicopter of sufficient capacity (based somewhere) snags a trailing wire and places the engine module on a pitching/rolling ship; and then lands somewhere; and then, finally, the ship, or ships, sails back to port to start the vehicle manufacturing, buildup, and launch cycle again.

    And, all that is less expensive than flying the stage back to the launch site (albeit at the expense of payload) and landing intact on dry land?

    Give me my wings and a horizontal landing any day.