The 1960s space race demonstrated that competition fuels innovation. The new space race of the 2010s, which now involves private companies rather than nation-states, is proving to be remarkably similar.
The United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, announced its new rocket, the Vulcan, on the same day that the launch and subsequent landing of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket was called off due to weather.
The Vulcan, so designated by the public, is in many respects ULA’s response to the Falcon 9.
While the Falcon 9’s first stage is designed to land on a barge for reuse, the Vulcan’s primary engines are intended to separate from the first stage, deploy parachutes to delay their descent, and then be captured in midair for reuse. This feature will not be included in the initial release, but it will become standard if it makes economic sense.
The second stage of the Vulcan, which will be able to operate in space for extended periods and theoretically deploy multiple satellites in various orbits, is also an innovative component. This feature would grant the new rocket an unprecedented degree of adaptability not seen on any previous launch vehicle.
ULA predicts that the Vulcan will eventually have a flight rate of 10 to 20 per year at a cost of $100 million per launch, a significant decrease from the Atlas V’s present cost of $165 million per launch. It will be capable of deploying nearly any conceivable payload, including communications satellites, planetary missions, and commercial crewed spacecraft.
Vulcan, which will be available in medium- to heavy-lift variants, is designed to compete not only with the SpaceX Falcon but also with launch vehicles from Arianespace, Russia, and China.