Watch Out, SpaceX: ULA Is Building a Reusable Rocket, Too

Watch the 2nd attempt of SpaceX to vertically land rocket back on Earth last 14 April 2015. The rocket made it to drone spaceport ship but landed hard.

 

The rocket business has gotten busier and competition is getting intense.

Elon Musk, the CEO of electric carmaker Tesla Motors and the aerospace manufacturer SpaceX, is vying with Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s 50-50 joint venture, United Launch Alliance (ULA).

Simply put, Musk wants to change how and where humans live. One way he plans on doing this is by making reusable rockets. A very brilliant idea, that ULA is trying to accomplish the same feat. Previously, ULA asked the public to vote on what the rocket’s new name will be: Eagle, Freedom or GalaxyOne (GO). All those names had been ruled out over Vulcan.

Currently, rockets are  on a one-time-use-only basis, resulting to an exorbitant cost for space travel. Average cost to launch a rocket is two hundred twenty-five million dollars as advised by ULA and that’s a discounted price. SpaceX pointed out that the majority of the launch cost is due to building the rocket.

SpaceX has started to build rockets where both the first and second stages are reusable to potentially slash the cost of launches. Moreover, SpaceX is already in the process of testing its Falcon 9 Resusable (F9R). Recent attempts to vertically land the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket back to Earth was on 10 January 2015 followed by the one on 14 April 2010. SpaceX was unsuccessful on both occasions. According to SpaceX, their goal is for the F9R to return Earth intact, touch down on land and be reusable numerous times.  So far, SpaceX managed to guide rockets back to their floating platform, an unmanned drone spaceport ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

The idea of making rockets land back to Earth is not an easy project. After the 2 first stage attempts of Falcon 9 Resusable, last June 28 launch SpaceX was suppose to send cargo to the International Space Station as part of its contract with NASA intended to resupply the International Space Station and conduct a rocket re-usability test, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket exploded soon after liftoff. This incident destroyed the rocket, cargo, ruined the Falcon 9’s previous 100% success rate. The odds of succeeding the third attempt to land the rocket on a drone ship are uncertain.

These setbacks of SpaceX are more than welcome news for ULA. In addition to working make rockets reusable, Musk has made it clear that SpaceX wants to be involved when it comes to national security launches. In the past, only ULA has been able to do this. In fact, Musk earlier sued the Air Force to get a piece of the $11 billion military and intelligence launch business, which he charged has unfairly gone to United Launch Alliance. He said that using SpaceX’ rockets over ULA’s could save taxpayers billions and that ULA’s Atlas uses Russian-made engines, which is a problem given the rising tensions between Russia and the U.S. Even though SpaceX didn’t follow through with its lawsuit, SpaceX proves to be quite the competitor to ULA.  The threat of SpaceX’s reusable rocket isn’t something that ULA is taking lightly.If SpaceX is successful in building a reusable rocket and ULA doesn’t have a viable alternative, ULA could effectively be rendered obsolete. This is going to be bad news for both Boeing and Lockheed Martin. According to Boeing’s 2014 annual report, equity earnings primarily attributable to ULA came to $211 million in 2014, and according to Lockheed Martin’s 2014 annual report, that number was approximately $280 million for Lockheed in that same year. Plus, the current Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV )block-buy contract will cost the Air Force $11 billion over the next five years, which directly benefits both Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

As a result, ULA is working on a next-generation launch system that’ll not only address some of Musk’s points of criticism but also compete with the F9R. ULA pointed out, “With the introduction of the Vulcan, ULA’s next-generation launch system, ULA is transforming the future of space launch — making it more affordable, accessible, and commercialized — and innovating to develop solutions to the nation’s most critical need: reliable access to space.”

Specifically, with an initial launch capability planned for 2019, according to ULA, the Vulcan will be reusable, have an engine that’s made in America, will exceed the capabilities of the Atlas V (and eventually the Delta IV Heavy), and be more affordable. Simply put, ULA has no intention of ceding its business to SpaceX.

Right now neither SpaceX nor ULA has a reusable rocket. That doesn’t mean  they won’t eventually get there. ULA is a highly successful launch company, it has over 100 successful launches since its inception in 2006. Plus it’s backed by two giants in the defense industry: Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

SpaceX, on the other hand, is relatively new. However it’s led by Elon Musk, the man tagged as the real-life Ironman. Moreover, it has accomplished a lot in the limited amount of time it’s been around. If these two companies will achieve their goals, it will undoubtedly be great news when it comes to furthering space travel. At the very least, however, this competition is great news for taxpayers. As Musk said, “SpaceX’ F9R could save taxpayers billions”.

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