United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket set for final design review

The final design review process is a milestone for Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s alliance. A successful launch will mean the U.S. will not have to rely on Russia’s RD-180 engine for critical national security missions.

In the space launch services market, Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co are set to conduct a final design review of their joint venture’s new flagship design of the Vulcan rocket, as they prepare for a showdown with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and others.

Having slipped from its initial 2019 timetable, the final design review is a crucial milestone for the United Launch Alliance (ULA), before it gears up for full production ahead of a first flight in spring 2021.

“The design is nearly fully mature,” said Dane Drefke, ULA’s systems test engineer.

Companies are vying to develop rockets that will carrry satellites into orbit in what the Satellite Industry Association lobby group estimates is a roughly $5.5 billion satellite launch services market.

Incidentally, ULA has started cutting and building hardware and has begun structural and pressure testing at its Decatur, Alabama factory. Its engineers have also started modifying the Florida launch pad and tower to accommodate the Vulcan.

ULA’s Atlas and Delta rockets have been synonymous with America’s space missions for decades.

Facing mounting competition from peers, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, ULA has had to undertake a cost cutting program which forced it to experiment with newer production methods.

SpaceX has upended the industry with reusable rocket technology which has resulted in slashing the cost of space transportation.

ULA is also facing competition from Amazon.com Inc’s founder Jeff Bezos whose space company Blue Origin said last week that it aims to fly its still-in-development New Glenn rocket in 2021.

While ULA’s rockets burn up during each voyage, making for reliable but costlier missions, the company is charting a strategy of returning the first-stage engine to Earth under a parachute and plucking it out of mid-air with a helicopter.

Incidentally, ULA’s Vulcan rocket will be powered partly by Blue Origin’s U.S.-built BE-4 engine. A successful launch will end the U.S. reliance on Russia’s RD-180 engine for national security missions.

In recent months, ULA has confirmed new purchases of at least five RD-180s for commercial satellite launches.

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