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ULA Unveils ‘Vulcan’ Rocket to End Russian Dependence

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- A Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. joint venture has unveiled a new rocket called the Vulcan designed in part to end the firm’s dependence on Russian engines.

The venture, known as United Launch Alliance LLC, introduced the concept on Monday here at the Space Symposium, the nation’s biggest space conference.

More powerful than the company’s existing Atlas rocket, the new launch system will sell for less than $100 million be ready for missions in 2019. More importantly, it will allow ULA -- and the U.S. Defense Department -- to end its controversial reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 engines.

“Because the Next Generation Launch System will be the highest-performing, most cost-efficient rocket on the market, it will open up new opportunities for the nation’s use of space,” Chief Executive Officer Tory Bruno said in a statement.

“Whether it is scientific missions, medical advancements, national security or new economic opportunities for businesses, ULA’s new Vulcan rocket is a game-changer in terms of creating endless possibilities in space,” he added.

The RD-180, made by NPO Energomash, is used as a first-stage engine on the Atlas booster in the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. ULA is the sole supplier of the Air Force acquisition effort, which launches military and spy satellites into space.

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 national-security programs, particularly amid rising tensions between the two countries over Russia’s military involvement in the Ukraine and other matters.

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

Congress in December authorized $220 million to develop an American-made replacement to the RD-180 as part of a massive spending bill called the Omnibus Appropriations Act. The legislative language specifies a “target demonstration date of fiscal year 2019.”

Companies have begun jockeying for the new funding. Aerojet Rocketdyne has partnered with Huntsville, Alabama-based Dynetics, to design a new rocket engine called the AR-1, a liquid oxygen and kerosene-fueled propulsion system similar to the iconic Apollo-era F1.

Meanwhile, companies such as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, are trying to compete for the $70 billion military launch market.

Elon Musk, the billionaire founder and chief executive officer of SpaceX, has blasted the Air Force for letting ULA have a monopoly on the defense business. SpaceX earlier this year dropped its lawsuit against the service after officials pledged to open more launches to competition. SpaceX is poised to become certified to launch national-security payloads in June, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has said.

The company is also trying to develop reusable rockets and on Tuesday will attempt to land a rocket that flew into space back on Earth -- on a movable dock in the Atlantic Ocean.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether ULA would seek government funding to develop technology for the Vulcan, which will essentially replace its entire family of Atlas and Delta boosters. The alliance last year partnered with Blue Origin LLC, owned by Amazon.com-founder Jeff Bezos, to develop a new reusable engine called the BE-4, which would use liquid natural gas, according to the press release.

The initial configuration of the next-generation launch system will consist of two stages, including the BE-4 or some other propulsion system for the first stage and the existing Centaur engine for the second stage, it states. Between four to six solid rocket boosters can be added to boost liftoff power, it states.

The future setup of the Vulcan will replace the Centaur second stage with a more powerful system called the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage, which is designed to execute almost unlimited burns, extend on-orbit operating time from hours to weeks, and match the potential of the company’s existing Delta IV Heavy rocket, according to the press release.

Seeking to match SpaceX in the development of reusable rockets, which would drastically lower launch costs, ULA also announced plans to incorporate into the new rocket so-called Sensible, Modular, Autonomous Return Technology.

The initiative seeks “to reuse the most expensive portion of the first stage – the booster main engines – via mid-air capture,” it states. “This allows a controlled recovery environment providing the confidence needed to re-fly the hardware.”

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