SpaceX gave the world a lot to talk about with the launch of Falcon Heavy for the very first time. The 70-metre-tall rocket’s three bolsters aided Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster into space, but moved swiftly towards earth after running low on fuel.

Two of the boosters landed safely, while the third one dropped into the ocean. The flight was deemed a huge success as it proved that SpaceX could recycle heavily expensive rocket parts and was capable of lifting huge payload to space for just 25 percent of the cost of its closest rival.

That close competitor is United Launch Alliance. Formed by aerospace industry tycoons Lockheed Martin and Boeing, ULA’s largest rocket— the Delta IV Heavy—costs about US$350 million for every launch. The fact that the rocket is not reusable makes it more expensive than Falcon Heavy (US$90 million).

ULA is currently developing its own version of reusable rocket called “Vulcan.” According to Tory Bruno, ULA’s CEO, the rocket (to fly in mid-2020) will start at sub-US$100-million, which in comparison to Delta IV Heavy is a 70 percent discount.Delta IV Heavy was world’s most powerful operational rocket. According to Bruno, sometimes one needs more than just that. Sometime it is important for a rocket to deliver something that is exotic and unique.

Even though Vulcan would be able to lift 40 tons (nearly three school buses) as compared to Falcon Heavy that can lift about 70 tons (nearly five school buses), there are huge differences between the two systems that might give Vulcan  an impressive edge.

While Falcon Heavy uses a rocket-grade RP-1 kerosene as fuel that can, after a couple of hours, freeze in space, Vulcan will utilise cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen that will prove to be more resilient to outer space temperatures.

Bruno also added that ULA is upgrading its upper-stage system into ACES: the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage.After deploying a spacecraft, ACES can be left unattended in the orbit for years. Instead of being discarded as “dead flying hulks in space,” ACES can be refuelled. Not just that, this system will enable transportation and economic activity between asteroids too. Vulcan, through detachable first-stage booster engines called SMART (sensible, modular, autonomous return technology), will also help in significantly lowering ULA’s launch costs.

Bruno added that the costliest thing on the booster was the rocket engine. The moment the SMART engine gets detached, it gets oriented for a high-speed re-entry by inflating an aero shell. The shell will in turn generate intense heat. There onwards, SMART will be floated to the ground with the help of a slender parachute.

ACES will get ready to debut in 2023 or 2024, and SMART will follow sometime after that. ULA is primarily banking on big satellites, which should get bigger, for its Vulcan business. Musk’s Falcon Heavy can get a huge opening as Delta IV Heavy might retire in “the early 2020s” after launching once or twice a year. Musk has commented he will eat his hat “with a side of mustard if [Vulcan] flies a national security spacecraft before 2023.”

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