Vulcan (rocket)

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Function Partly-reusable launch vehicle
Manufacturer ULA
Country of origin United States
Diameter 5.4 m (18 ft) [1]
Stages 2
Launch history
Status In development
Launch sites Cape Canaveral SLC-41
Vandenberg SLC-3E[2]
First flight 2019 (planned)
No. boosters 0-6
Motor GEM 63XL[3]
First stage
Diameter 5.4 m (18 ft) (BE-4 option), or
3.81 m (12.5 ft) (AR1 option)
Engines 2 BE-4 or AR1
Thrust 4,900 kN (1,100,000 lbf)
Fuel CH4 / LOX
Second stage - Centaur (initial flights, late-2010s)
Engines 1 RL10-C
Thrust 103.8 kN (23,300 lbf)
Specific impulse 448.5 seconds (4.398 km/s)
Fuel LH2 / LOX
Second stage - ACES (proposed, mid-2020s)
Engines 4 RL10-C or 1 BE-3 or XR-8H21 XCOR engine (TBC)
Fuel LH2 / LOX

The Vulcan rocket is an American heavy-payload launch vehicle under development since 2014 by United Launch Alliance (ULA), funded by a public–private partnership with the US government. ULA expects the first launch of the new rocket to occur no earlier than 2019.

To date, the ULA board of directors has made only short-term (quarterly) funding commitments to the rocket development project, and it is unclear if long-term private funding will be available to finish the project. As of March 2016, the US government has committed US$201 million to Vulcan development,[4] and ULA is working to obtain additional government funding for development of the launch vehicle.[5]


ULA had considered several launch vehicle concepts in the decade since the company was formed in 2006. Various concepts for derivative vehicles based on the Atlas and Delta lines of launch vehicles they inherited from their predecessor companies were presented to the US government for funding. None were funded beyond concept stage.

In early 2014, geopolitical and US political considerations involving international sanctions during the Ukrainian crisis, led to an effort by ULA to consider possibly replacing the Russian-supplied RD-180 engine used on the first stage booster of the Atlas V. Formal study contracts were issued by ULA in June 2014 to several US rocket engine suppliers.[6] ULA was also facing competition from SpaceX — then seen to affect its core national security market of US military launches — and by July 2014, the United States Congress was debating whether to legislate a ban on future use of the RD-180.[7]

In September 2014, ULA announced that it had entered into a partnership with Blue Origin to develop the BE-4 liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid methane (CH4) engine to replace the RD-180 on a new first stage booster. The engine was already in its third year of development by Blue Origin, and ULA said it expected the new stage and engine to start flying no earlier than 2019.[8] Two of the 2,400-kilonewton (550,000 lbf)-thrust BE-4 engines were to be used on a new launch vehicle booster.[6]

In October 2014, ULA announced a major restructuring of company processes and workforce to reduce launch costs by half. One of the reasons given for the restructuring and new cost reduction goals was new competition in the launch market from SpaceX.[9][7] ULA stated it planned to have preliminary design ideas in place for a blending of its existing Atlas V and Delta IV technologies by the end of 2014, to build a successor to the Atlas V that would allow them to halve Atlas V launch costs.[9] A part of the restructuring effort was described as the effort to co-develop the alternative BE-4 engine with Blue Origin for the new launch vehicle.[10]

ULA first referred to the successor concept vehicle as a "next generation launch system" in October 2014[9] and used that descriptor for the rocket through the end of 2014 and into early 2015.[8] ULA did not release details by the end of 2014, but unveiled the new vehicle April 2015.

On 13 April 2015, CEO Tory Bruno unveiled the new ULA launch vehicle as the Vulcan at the 31st Space Symposium, a new two-stage-to-orbit (TSTO) rocket that would be rolled out incrementally. The Vulcan name was chosen after an online poll to select the name. Vulcan Inc. has stated that it holds the trademark on the name and has contacted ULA.[11] As of 24 April 2015, the ULA board had not yet approved the new launch vehicle, with first launch planned in 2019.[7]

ULA plans an "incremental approach" to rolling out the vehicle and its technologies.[12] Deployment will begin with the first stage, based on the Delta IV's fuselage diameter and production process and is expected to use two BE-4 engines. Aerojet Rocketdyne's AR1 engine is being retained by ULA as a contingency option, with a final decision to be made in 2016. The first stage can have from zero to six solid rocket boosters (SRBs), and in the maximal configuration could launch a heavier payload than the highest-rated Atlas V, though still less than the Delta IV Heavy. A later feature is planned to make the first stage partly reusable. ULA plans to develop the technology to allow the engines to detach from the vehicle after cutoff, descend through the atmosphere with a heat shield and parachute, and finally be captured by a helicopter in mid-air.[11] In April 2015, ULA estimated that reusing the engines would reduce the cost of the first stage propulsion by 90%, with propulsion being 65% of the total first stage build cost.[13]

Initial configurations of Vulcan will use the same Centaur upper stage as the Atlas V, with its existing RL10 engines. A later advanced cryogenic upper stage — called the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) — is conceptually planned for full development by ULA in the late 2010s. ACES would be LOX and liquid hydrogen (LH2) powered by one to four rocket engines yet to be selected. This upper stage will include the Integrated Vehicle Fluids technology that could allow long on-orbit life of the upper stage, measured in weeks rather than hours.[14][12]

In 2015, ULA stated its goal was to sell a "barebones Vulcan" for half the price of a basic Atlas V rocket, which as of 2015, sells for about $164 million. Addition of strap-on boosters for heavier satellites would increase the price.[15]

In May 2015, the ULA CEO released a chart showing a potential future Vulcan Heavy three-core launch vehicle with 23,000 kg (50,000 lb)-payload capacity to geostationary transfer orbit, while a one-core Vulcan 561 with the ACES upper stage would have 15,100 kg (33,200 lb) capacity to the same orbit.[16]

In September 2015, ULA and Blue Origin announced an agreement to expand production abilities to include the BE-4 rocket engine then in development and test. However, ULA also reconfirmed that the decision on the BE-4 versus the AJR AR1 would not be made until late 2016, with maiden flight of Vulcan no earlier than 2019.[17] As of January 2016, full-engine testing of the BE-4 is planned to begin prior to the end of 2016.[18] In 2016, ULA is designing two versions of the Vulcan first stage, one using the BE-4 with a 5.4 m (18 ft) outer diameter to support the less-dense methane fuel and an AR1 design with the same 3.81 m (12.5 ft) diameter as Atlas V for the denser RP-1 (kerosene) fuel.[19]

In March 2016, ULA completed the Preliminary Design Review (PDR) for one of the two parallel designs: the Vulcan/Centaur launch vehicle with dual Blue Origin BE-4 engines. The PDR "confirms that the design meets the requirements for the diverse set of missions it will support."[20]

In April 2016, ULA CEO Tory Bruno stated that the company was targeting a complete launch services price of $99 million for Vulcan.[21]


Vulcan is being funded by a combination of government and private funds.[4] The initial private funding for Vulcan development, over the first 18 months since announcement in October 2014, has been approved only for the short term. By April 2015, it became public that the United Launch Alliance board of directors — composed entirely of executives from Boeing and Lockheed Martin — is approving development funding on only a quarter-by-quarter basis.[22] Funding remained limited to quarterly approvals in June 2015, and Lockheed Martin was actively working to use the funding limitation to get the US Congress to change existing law and allow extension of ULA ability to acquire RD-180 engines for the Atlas V.[23] In March 2016, executives from ULA indicated that the practice of quarter-by-quarter investment for Vulcan development would continue.[4]

By March 2016, the US Air Force had committed US$201 million of funding for Vulcan development. ULA has not "put a firm price tag on [the total cost of Vulcan development but ULA CEO Tory Bruno has] said new rockets typically cost $2 billion, including $1 billion for the main engine."[4] ULA has asked the US government to provide a minimum of US$1.2 billion by 2020 to assist it in developing the new US launch vehicle.[4] ULA Board of Directors member, and Boeing executive (President of Boeing's Network and Space Systems (N&SS) division), Craig Cooning said in April 2016 that he is confident that the US Air Force will invest in further funding of Vulcan development costs.[5]


The first stage tanks will be derived from those of the Delta IV, using two of the 2,400-kilonewton (550,000 lbf)-thrust BE-4 engines.[6][24][25] The engine is already in its third year of development by Blue Origin, and ULA expects the new stage and engine to start flying no earlier than 2019.

Vulcan will initially use the same Centaur upper stage as on Atlas V, later to be upgraded to ACES.[24] It will also use a variable number of optional solid rocket boosters, called the Graphite-Epoxy Motor (GEM) 60XL, derived from the new solid boosters planned for Atlas V.[26]


  1. Peller, Mark. "United Launch Alliance" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-03-30.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Clark, Stephen (12 October 2015). "ULA selects launch pads for new Vulcan rocket". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved 12 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Rhian, Jason. "ULA selects Orbital ATK's GEM 63/63XL SRBs for Atlas V and Vulcan Boosters". Spaceflight Insider. Retrieved 2015-09-25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Gruss, Mike (2016-03-10). "ULA's parent companies still support Vulcan … with caution". SpaceNews. Retrieved 2016-03-10.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 Host, Pat (2016-04-12). "Cooning Confident Air Force Will Invest In Vulcan Development". Defense Daily. Retrieved 2016-04-13.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Ferster, Warren (2014-09-17). "ULA To Invest in Blue Origin Engine as RD-180 Replacement". Space News. Retrieved 2014-09-19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Gruss, Mike (2015-04-24). "Evolution of a Plan : ULA Execs Spell Out Logic Behind Vulcan Design Choices". Space News. Retrieved 25 April 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 Fleischauer, Eric (7 February 2015). "ULA's CEO talks challenges, engine plant plans for Decatur". Decatur Daily. Retrieved 2015-04-17.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Avery, Greg (2014-10-16). "ULA plans new rocket, restructuring to cut launch costs in half". Denver Business Journal. Retrieved 2015-04-17.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Delgado, Laura M. (2014-11-14). "ULA's Tory Bruno Vows To Transform Company". Retrieved 2015-04-17.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. 11.0 11.1 Boyle, Alan (2015-04-13). "United Launch Alliance Boldly Names Its Next Rocket: Vulcan!". NBC. Retrieved 2015-04-17.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. 12.0 12.1 Gruss, Mike (2015-04-13). "ULA's Vulcan Rocket To be Rolled out in Stages". SpaceNews. Retrieved 2015-04-17.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Ray, Justin (14 April 2015). "ULA chief explains reusability and innovation of new rocket". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved 2015-04-17.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "America, meet Vulcan, your next United Launch Alliance rocket". Denver Post. 2015-04-13. Retrieved 2015-04-17.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Clark, Stephen (22 April 2015). "ULA needs commercial business to close Vulcan rocket business case". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved 23 April 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Bruno, Tory (2015-05-05). "ULA Full Spectrum Lift Capability". United Launch Alliance. Retrieved 8 May 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "Boeing, Lockheed Differ on Whether to Sell Rocket Joint Venture". Wall Street Journal. 10 September 2015. Retrieved 2015-09-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Berger, Brian (2016-01-23). "Launch. Land. Repeat: Blue Origin posts video of New Shepard's Friday flight". SpaceNews. Retrieved 2016-01-24. Also this year, we’ll start full-engine testing of the BE-4<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. de Selding, Peter B. (2016-03-16). "ULA intends to lower its costs, and raise its cool, to compete with SpaceX". SpaceNews. Retrieved 2016-03-19. Methane rocket has a lower density so we have a 5.4 meter design outside diameter, while drop back to the Atlas V size for the kerosene AR1 version. ... Aerojet Rocketdyne AR1 ... haven't built any hardware yet ... additive manufacturing is revolutionizing complex casting ... Aerojet is investing a little bit of their own money. Primarily they are counting on the government's RPS (Rocket Propulsion System) contracts to drive the funding.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "United Launch Alliance Completes Preliminary Design Review for Next-Generation Vulcan Centaur Rocket". Archived from the original on 2016-03-25. Retrieved 2016-03-25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "United Launch Alliance to lay off up to 875 by end of 2017: CEO". Reuters. 2016-04-14. Retrieved 2016-05-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Avery, Greg (2015-04-16). "The fate of United Launch Alliance and its Vulcan rocket may lie with Congress" (Denver Business Journal). Retrieved 28 April 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. 24.0 24.1 Mike Gruss (13 April 2015). "ULA's Vulcan Rocket To be Rolled out in Stages". Space News.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Butler, Amy (11 May 2015). "Industry Team Hopes To Resurrect Atlas V Post RD-180". Aviation Week & Space Technology. Archived from the original on 12 May 2015. Retrieved 12 May 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Jason Rhian (23 September 2015). "ULA selects Orbital ATK's GEM 63/63 XL SRBs for Atlas V and Vulcan boosters". Spaceflight Insider.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

  • Official website
  • ISPCS 2015 Keynote, Mark Peller, Program Manager of Major Development at ULA and Vulcan Program Manager discusses Vulcan, 8 October 2015. Key discussion of Vulcan is at 12:20 in the video.