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posted by mrpg on Tuesday March 20 2018, @01:30AM   Printer-friendly
from the to-infinity...-and-low-orbit dept.

The United Launch Alliance's CEO Tory Bruno has been making his case for the upcoming Vulcan rocket and Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage. The system could compete against SpaceX's Falcon Heavy and BFR in the mid-2020s:

The maiden flight of the Vulcan currently is targeted for the middle of 2020. Two successful commercial launches are required as part of the government certification process, followed by a required upper stage upgrade to improve performance, either moving from two to four Centaur RL10 engines or using a different set of engines altogether. If all goes well, ULA will introduce its new upper stage in 2024, the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage, or ACES, that Bruno says will revolutionize spaceflight. "This is on the scale of inventing the airplane," Bruno told reporters during the media roundtable. "That's how revolutionary this upper stage is. It's 1900, and I'm inventing the airplane. People don't even know what they're going to do with it yet. But I'm confident it's going to create a large economy in space that doesn't exist today. No one is working on anything like this."

The Vulcan will stand 228 feet tall with a first stage powered by two engines provided by either Blue Origin, a company owned by Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos, or Aerojet Rocketdyne. Blue Origin's BE-4 engine burns methane and liquid oxygen while Aerojet Rocketdyne's AR-1 powerplant burns a more traditional mixture of oxygen and highly refined kerosene.

[...] ULA plans to begin engine recovery operations after the Vulcan is routinely flying and after the ACES upper stage is implemented. Bruno said the engines represent two-thirds of the cost of the stage and getting them back every time, with no impact on mission performance, will pay big dividends. SpaceX, in contrast, must use propellant to fly its Falcon 9 stages back to touchdown. Heavy payloads bound for high orbits require most if not all of the rocket's propellant and in those cases, recovery may not be possible. As a result, SpaceX's ability to recover rocket stages depends on its manifest and the orbital demands of those payloads.

"Simplistically, if you recover the old booster propulsively then you can do that part of the time, you get all the value back some of the time," Bruno said. "Or, you can recover just the engine, which is our concept, and then you get only part of the value back, about two thirds ... but you get to do it every single time because there's no performance hit. So it really turns into math."

ULA expects to fly at least 7-8 more Delta IV Heavy rockets between now and the early 2020s, with some Atlas V launches happening concurrently with the beginning of Vulcan launches in the mid-2020s.

The U.S. Air Force has just awarded ULA a $355 million contract to launch two Air Force Space Command spacecraft, and SpaceX a $290 million contract to launch three GPS Block III satellites.

In addition to testing BFR with short hops starting in 2019, SpaceX plans to send BFR into orbit by 2020. The company is leasing land in Los Angeles, reportedly for the construction of BFR rockets.

Related: SpaceX's Reusable Rockets Could End EU's Arianespace, and Other News
Boeing CEO Says His Company Will Carry Humans to Mars Before SpaceX
Zuma Failure Emboldens SpaceX's ULA-Backed Critics; Gets Support from US Air Force [Updated]
SpaceX to Launch Five Times in April, Test BFR by 2019


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  • (Score: 5, Interesting) by eravnrekaree on Tuesday March 20 2018, @03:10AM (7 children)

    by eravnrekaree (555) on Tuesday March 20 2018, @03:10AM (#655251)

    If SpaceX hadn't upped the ante, this would not be happening. It would still be business as usual at ULA, since they would have no incentive to change, charging the US government $200 million per launch and letting the commercial market go to the Russians. SpaceX deserves all the credit for this, therefore, and deserves to be a major part of the future space program. I would suggest cancelling the SLS now and continueing with SpaceX, Blue Origin, Orbital Science, ULA's proposal, etc, so that we can have multiple, very affordable launch platforms instead. It is very clear with NASAs limited budget it cannot afford SLS. NASA should focus on the payload and use these new COTS platforms instead. NASA with the shuttle seemed to be focused on the launch vehicle far too much rather than what you are launching into space. Thus the launch vehicle itself is not the space program itself, but the means to the end which is the science missions etc you want to do. Because of that the Shuttle used up so much money on that boondoggle, it set back the US space program decades, and the SLS would do the same.

    • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 20 2018, @05:08AM (6 children)

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 20 2018, @05:08AM (#655271)

      The congressional lackeys of the Military Industrial Complex would never free NASA of the politically imposed "investment" in future launch vehicles. If anything, they'll lock a whole bunch of unrelated budgetary items behind the precondition of investing in SLS so they can wash their hands of the blame when NASA is de-facto forced to accept the terms: "Hey look, it's NASA who wants to sink money into SLS, not us!"

      • (Score: 3, Insightful) by takyon on Tuesday March 20 2018, @06:03AM (5 children)

        by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Tuesday March 20 2018, @06:03AM (#655278) Journal

        If BFR flies at $50-100 million a launch, it could be game over for SLS. SLS may not have its maiden flight (no earlier than December 15, 2019, but likely delayed again to 2020 [spaceflightnow.com]) before SpaceX begins initial testing of BFR. If they delay the SLS maiden flight some more, BFR could actually reach orbit first. SLS Block 1B with 105 tons payload to LEO doesn't fly until around 2022. The final version of SLS, Block 2, doesn't fly until around 2029, and will still carry less payload than BFR.

        But if/when BFR starts to fly under the $5-6 million Falcon 1 cost, it's a revolution and even the United Launch Alliance could be in some serious trouble. The SLS will just be totally killed off. Even the military industrial complex can't justify a pork rocket that costs 100 to 600 times more to launch a smaller payload.

        ULA's best defense against SpaceX is government and military's desire for redundant capabilities. If the upstart SpaceX fails, we aren't crippled by it because top secret payloads can still be launched by a U.S. (Beltway bandit) company. But SpaceX isn't ULA's only competition. There's also Blue Origin [wikipedia.org] (New Glenn [wikipedia.org] rocket, which looks like it can match ULA's Vulcan) and other new players. Blue Origin doesn't have to match SpaceX on price; it can compete with ULA instead. And the small launchers can undercut SpaceX BFR on the smallest payloads (some schemes target as low as $500,000 per launch [nextbigfuture.com]).

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        • (Score: 2) by bob_super on Tuesday March 20 2018, @05:45PM (4 children)

          by bob_super (1357) on Tuesday March 20 2018, @05:45PM (#655515)

          > if/when BFR starts to fly under the $5-6 million Falcon 1 cost, it's a revolution

          What's the profit margin and ROI at that price ?
          That will never happen. Get over it.
          You can't finance Mars (and beyond) by giving away your launches at cost. You're at least an order of magnitude off, and that would already be an amazing price I wouldn't be on.
          $100M per BFR would still crush the competition in that weight class, while actually turning a nice profit for the rest of Musk's ambitions. Tell me why they should go any lower.

          • (Score: 2) by takyon on Tuesday March 20 2018, @06:25PM (3 children)

            by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Tuesday March 20 2018, @06:25PM (#655539) Journal

            The fuel cost could be less than $1 million [quora.com]. Cheaper liquid methane and liquid oxygen propellant is being used by the Raptor engines in BFR, compared to RP-1 kerosene and liquid oxygen used by the Merlin engines in Falcon 9/Heavy. The need for constant refurbishment can be eliminated by improvements to the rocket. Newer variants of the Falcon 9, such as Block 5 which is launching in April, are simpler and cheaper to reuse.

            The development costs can get covered by selling initial launches for closer to $100 million, and the price can be brought down over time until even smaller companies and universities can buy a launch, expanding the launch market and frequency.

            If almost all customers launch in reusable mode, which is likely since 150 tons to LEO is the largest payload capability ever, then a single BFR could fly a payload, land, and fly another payload in a day or two. In practice, they will probably want to keep at least 2-3 BFRs at every launch facility they own or lease. That way you can launch your payload from either Florida, California, or Texas. The U.S. government can lease its own dedicated BFR launchers.

            Not sure what you mean by "financing Mars". While Musk has talked about plans for what to do on Mars, SpaceX is primarily a launch provider and not a colonization company. SpaceX might attempt to land some payloads or humans on Mars with its own capital, but it will be cooperating with governments and other partners if it wants to send a million people to Mars. And even then there may be a ticket price paid by each colonist.

            One way SpaceX plans to finance itself is with StarLink satellite Internet service [cnbc.com], which it expects to generate billions in revenue a year.

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            • (Score: 2) by bob_super on Tuesday March 20 2018, @06:42PM (2 children)

              by bob_super (1357) on Tuesday March 20 2018, @06:42PM (#655551)

              > The fuel cost could be less than $1 million

              Right, and my car uses less than ten cents of gas per mile. For 5 times that, I could totally sustain a few thousand people lobbying for and taking delivery orders, specifying, receiving and checking payloads, mounting them, getting permissions for drives, designing, maintaining and moving the return boats, repairing and insuring my car, renting my startup point and the giant parking hangars at three separate facilites, monitoring my every move with a full set of cameras and sensors, designing and testing my next custom car while dealing with suppliers of my current parts, and pay back the people who lent me cash to build it all.

              300 launches a year at 5M gross margin 1.5 Billion dollars. The math just doesn't work.
              And it doesn't have to. Give me a good reason why it should. $50M would already be a revolution and utterly destroy the competition. In which universe would anyone just set their price an order of magnitude lower than what is an assured hit ?

              • (Score: 2) by takyon on Tuesday March 20 2018, @06:53PM (1 child)

                by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Tuesday March 20 2018, @06:53PM (#655559) Journal

                In which universe would anyone just set their price an order of magnitude lower than what is an assured hit ?

                Musky's universe:

                https://www.universetoday.com/138821/first-spacex-bfr-make-orbital-launches-2020/ [universetoday.com]

                As an example, Musk compared the cost of renting a 747 with full cargo (about $500,000) and flying from California to Australia to buying a single engine turboprop plane, – which would run about $1.5 million and cannot even reach Australia. In short, the BFR relies on the principle that it costs less for an entirely reusable large spaceship to make a long trip that it does to launch a single rocket on a short trip that would never return.

                “A BFR flight will actually cost less than our Falcon 1 flight did,” he said. “That was about a 5 or 6 million dollar marginal cost per flight. We’re confident the BFR will be less than that. That’s profound, and that is what will enable the integration of a permanent base on the Moon and a city on Mars. And that’s the equivalent of like the Union Pacific Railroad, or having ships that can quickly cross the oceans.”

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                • (Score: 2) by bob_super on Tuesday March 20 2018, @07:05PM

                  by bob_super (1357) on Tuesday March 20 2018, @07:05PM (#655572)

                  > "That was about a 5 or 6 million dollar marginal cost per flight"

                  I see. We're having a terminology confusion between SpaceX's "marginal cost" and the customer's price.
                  Hence my list of extra expenses, which must be covered by charging somewhere between a hundred points and a 20x premium over cost, depending on the customer and payload.

                  Ain't gonna be no $5M BFR launches, even in constant dollars.

  • (Score: 5, Insightful) by Virindi on Tuesday March 20 2018, @06:22AM (7 children)

    by Virindi (3484) on Tuesday March 20 2018, @06:22AM (#655279)

    "This is on the scale of inventing the airplane," Bruno told reporters during the media roundtable. "That's how revolutionary this upper stage is. It's 1900, and I'm inventing the airplane.

    So what you're saying is, marketing decided how 'revolutionary' this product had to be and that's how 'revolutionary' it is.

    Just like is standard in modern startups, make all the claims about how great your product is going to be and then let someone else figure out the details later. Except here, someone else has ALREADY FIGURED OUT THE DETAILS AND IS FLYING IT. Falcon Heavy is an incremental upgrade, this thing is a new as yet nonexistent design.

    We seem to live in an era of huge, baseless promises.

    • (Score: 3, Insightful) by Immerman on Tuesday March 20 2018, @04:57PM (6 children)

      by Immerman (3985) on Tuesday March 20 2018, @04:57PM (#655483)

      I don't know about baseless promises - no reason to expect they won't deliver unless BFR drives launch prices so low so that the profit margins no longer justify finishing it. Baseless self-aggrandizement on the other hand...

      • (Score: 2) by Virindi on Wednesday March 21 2018, @10:09AM (5 children)

        by Virindi (3484) on Wednesday March 21 2018, @10:09AM (#656008)

        I was referring to ULA in that comment, but honestly, BFR is also in the "big promises" stage right now. I still do not find Big Promises trustworthy; BFR sounds really great, but I'll believe it when I see it.

        Which is the same thing I said about Falcon stages landing on a barge. The idea seemed ridiculously difficult, but hey, they solved it. Great job and an amazing accomplishment, but that doesn't necessarily mean we should assume they will accomplish the next amazing feat. That remains to be seen. The BFR design right now falls into the "doing this economically would be ludicrous" category, but I will be happy if they prove me wrong again.

        • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Wednesday March 21 2018, @05:26PM (4 children)

          by Immerman (3985) on Wednesday March 21 2018, @05:26PM (#656222)

          I can't say I disagree, though it's worth noting that in many ways the BFR is an incremental promise atop what SpaceX has already delivered. Admittedly SEVERAL non-trivial incremental improvements combined, but nothing to make their plans seem particularly spectacular except the intended dramatic increase in re-usability. But when you get right down to it the BFR construction costs are projected to cost only several times as much as a Falcon 9 to build (10-20x as I recall), and thus should be able to economically replace the Falcon 9 if its reusability is improved enough to deliver a comparable level of savings. And depending on how well the extra payload capacity can be leveraged, the necessary "break even" increase in reusability may be much lower - For example if a BFR can use its 6x greater maximum payload to instead deliver just 3x the number of satellites to different orbits as an F9 in a single launch, then it need only achieve about 3-7x the level of reusability cost savings. to break even.

          That certainly won't be enough to bring the revolution of $5M launches and affordable Mars missions he hopes for, but it would be enough to justify its replacing the F9, and thus provide a solid economic foundation for pursuing further refinements.

          • (Score: 2) by Virindi on Thursday March 22 2018, @12:05PM (3 children)

            by Virindi (3484) on Thursday March 22 2018, @12:05PM (#656559)

            It seems like using one rocket to launch a large number of satellites would demand more deltav from each satellite to reach its final orbit?

            I'm guessing this value is calculated in to how much a satellite owner is willing to pay for a launch?

            • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Thursday March 22 2018, @12:58PM (2 children)

              by Immerman (3985) on Thursday March 22 2018, @12:58PM (#656572)

              Not necessarily - if you only launched with half the max payload you'd still have 3x the payload of an F9, while having a lot of fuel left over after you reached LEO to visit multiple different orbits and deploy satellites individually, depending on just how different those orbits are. Alternately, you could simply dramatically loosen the size and mass constraints on the satellites so that they could easily propel themselves to their final orbit. Or even develop mini-rockets - orbital boosters designed specifically for that "last mile" orbital insertion. The long-term ideal might be deploying a fleet of refuelable "orbital tugboats" that would rendezvous with the launcher for the purpose, as well as also retrieving and refueling satellites. Heck, it'd be inefficient overkill, but leave a few BFR Spaceships in orbit, equipped with robot arms and refueled with all the excess fuel every launch can carry. Or alternately, probably easier, use the cheaper, larger-tank BFR tankers to store excess fuel from some launches to refuel those that need more delta-v. Why launch with less than full fuel tanks? That fuel will be valuable in orbit.

              • (Score: 2) by Virindi on Thursday March 22 2018, @01:29PM (1 child)

                by Virindi (3484) on Thursday March 22 2018, @01:29PM (#656583)

                Those ideas require that stuff be launched into similar orbits, large additional complexity, or added capacity on the part of the thing being launched. Sure that's all possible, but it's not as simple as just slapping multiple satellites on the same rocket.

                Too bad real life isn't like KSP, where every launch goes to an equatorial orbit :D

                • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Thursday March 22 2018, @02:19PM

                  by Immerman (3985) on Thursday March 22 2018, @02:19PM (#656597)

                  Similar orbits certainly makes things easier, but how similar they need to be would depend very heavily on how much available delta-V the Spaceship has remaining after reaching orbit. And transferring fuel to/from an orbital tanker would actually be an excellent way to perfect what they hope to make a routine process for lunar and interplanetary missions.

                  Meanwhile, added satellite capacity is relatively trivial - a bigger "gas tank" is no great challenge, especially given much more generous mass and size constraints for the same launch cost.

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