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A Chinook May Soon Capture a Rocket Engine from the Sky

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- U.S. rocket-makers are pushing to develop reusable engines and other components that will help to reduce the cost of launch.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX and headed by billionaire Elon Musk, on Tuesday failed in its second attempt to land a rocket back on Earth. The company, however, came close -- the booster hit a barge floating in the Atlantic Ocean, but tipped over and was destroyed.

“Rocket landed on droneship, but too hard for survival,” Musk tweeted. He added later, “Looks like Falcon landed fine, but excess lateral velocity caused it to tip over post landing.”

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SpaceX’s rival, United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., is taking a different approach. Rather than try to recover the entire first stage of the rocket, the firm wants to fly a CH-47 Chinook helicopter to capture the rocket engine as it falls from the sky.

The plan isn’t as wild as it sounds.

After the first stage of the rocket launches and finishes its burn, the engine would separate from the booster and fall in free flight. Moments later, a heat shield would deploy, adding drag and slowing the engine’s descent. After the heat shield or airfoil separates, a drogue would deploy, followed by a main parachute, further slowing the engine’s descent. At that point, the chopper would fly by and snag the engine out of mid-air.

ULA announced the initiative, called the Sensible, Modular, Autonomous Return Technology (SMART), as part of a larger unveiling of a new rocket design, called the Vulcan, also known as the Next-Generation Launch System (NGLS), this week here at the Space Symposium, the nation’s largest space conference.

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While SpaceX wants to develop rockets that could someday land on planets such as Mars, ULA is looking for ways to salvage as many rocket engines as it can. The venture may not have enough Russian-made RD-180 engines to launch military and spy satellites in coming years.

ULA is the sole supplier in an Air Force program called the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, which uses Atlas and Delta rockets to launch national-security payloads into space. The venture uses the RD-180, made by NPO Energomash, as a first-stage engine on the Atlas booster.

While the engine is relatively cheap and has contributed to the company’s long record of successful launches, it has become a flash point in the debate over American reliance on Russian technology for defense programs, particularly amid rising tensions between the two countries over Russia’s military involvement in the Ukraine.

U.S. lawmakers, Pentagon officials and potential competitors in the military launch market such as SpaceX have criticized the arrangement as conflicting with American national-security interests.

Congress in passing last year a massive spending bill called the Omnibus Appropriations Act included $220 million in funding to develop a new rocket engine that could replace the RD-180 by 2019. Another bill, called the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, included language that would limit how many of the Russian propulsion systems ULA could buy.

There is disagreement, however, over whether the number is five or 14 engines, in addition to an already planned block buy of booster cores -- a disparity that would have significant implications for ULA.

The latter figure will give the joint venture enough engines to cover launches through 2019, when a potential replacement being developed by Blue Origin LLC, called the BE-4, is ready. ULA is also considering using the AR-1 engine being developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne as a back-up.

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“It’s really about having enough engines to make it to the replacement engine … whatever it takes to get us enough engines to get to a replacement,” Chief Executive Officer Tory Bruno said in an interview with Military.com.

“We are carrying both of those until we get to a point where we make a down-selection,” he said. “The criteria, of course, are: Is it working? Is it hitting the price point? And is it going to be available when we need it? The latest point in time that I expect to make that down selection is late 2016, maybe early 2017. At that point, I have to choose because I can’t afford to take them both to completion.”

ULA and SpaceX traded jabs over how best to accomplish the goal of making rockets reusable.

“You have to approach reusability from the architectural level – it’s how you design your engines, how you qualify your engines,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said during a panel discussion at the conference. “I’m certainly not saying that we’re done by any stretch, but it requires care and thought in the fundamental vehicle design.”

Bruno said the rocket reusability is more of an economic challenge than a technical one.

“This is the beauty and the power of a proper commercial marketplace because there is always more than one way to approach a problem,” he said. “One company has taken one strategy toward reusability … We’ve arrived at a different solution, a different conclusion, and we’re going another way, and in the economics of the marketplace, we’ll see who’s right.”

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