Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Different Paths for Reusable Rockets Taken by SpaceX and ULA

When it comes to dramatically lowering the cost of access to space, industry titans agree that reusability is key. But that’s where the unity ends, as industry upstart SpaceX and long-time launch provider United Launch Alliance (ULA) take two very different approaches to reusability.

Speaking at the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado this week, ULA president and chief executive Tory Bruno said it would take a series of 10 launches just to recoup the manufacturing and logistical costs associated with building and recovering a returned booster.

SpaceX’s successful Falcon 9 vertical landing on an ocean landing pad last week was undoubtedly a historic accomplishment, but ULA maintains that its engine recovery concept makes more sense from a business perspective.

Last month, the company completed a preliminary design review of its Vulcan Centaur next-generation launch vehicle, powered by dual Blue Origin BE-4 liquefied natural gas/liquid oxygen engines. It's also considering the Aerojet Rocketdyne AR-1 oxygen-rich staged combustion kerosene engine.

Eventually, the Vulcan design will be updated to jettison those engines. The engine module will be protected on its high-speed fall back to Earth by a hypercone heatshield before deploying a parachute and being caught mid-air by an awaiting helicopter.

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