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America's Newly Announced Rocket Will Be Recaptured in Midair With a Helicopter

The reusable rocket space race is on.
April 13, 2015, 9:43pm

​The commercial space race just got a lot more interesting. America's biggest private space conglomerate just announced a new, reusable rocket that it hopes to recover in midair with a helicopter after it's launched.

United Launch Alliance is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing with an impeccable track record. But the company has been using outdated, very expensive, Russian-made rocket engines. As a result, its current rocket, Atlas, is simply too expensive to compete with SpaceX and its Falcon 9, which has been reliably resupplying the International Space Station for two years now and has been regularly cutting its cost-per-launch prices.

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While other companies do make and launch rockets, the SpaceX-ULA rivalry is most heated and, let's be honest, no one else has shown the same sort of reliability as either company (and no one else has the deep pockets that ULA has).

Monday, ULA announced its new rocket, the Vulcan, which is set for its first flight in 2019. Spaceflight Now has the full scoop, but here are the important takeaways:

Vulcan's engines will be American-made

This is huge, from a national security perspective. Congress has repeatedly taken ULA to task for using Russian rocket engines. Russia has said it will stop selling engines to American companies, and American politicians don't want ULA sending money to Russian companies, anyway.

Vulcan will be customizable

The rocket will be modular and will be able to fly all sorts of weights and sizes of satellites into orbit. It'll have at least a dozen different configurations and can do both medium- and heavy-lift.

Vulcan will be partially reusable (eventually)

This is the big one. SpaceX has ​been the only company to really attempt to build a reusable rocket, which many believe is key to democratizing (or at least drastically cutting down the price of) space access. Some people would disagree, saying a reusable rocket is more trouble than it's worth, but, as it stands, we're generally throwing away huge, expensive parts of rockets.

Image: ​ULA via Spaceflight Now

Musk is trying to create a rocket that can safely land itself back at the launch pad. Vulcan, meanwhile, is taking an entirely different approach: ULA says it's going to try to capture only the most valuable parts of a rocket, such as its engine and onboard powerplant, as they plummet back toward Earth, using a helicopter.

"What something weighs drives how hard it is and how expensive it is to recover it. As it turns out, the things that weigh the most are not the things most valuable on the rocket," Tory Bruno, ULA's president, told Spaceflight Now. "Our concept for reusability is inside that mathematics and realizes that maybe reusability does not start with entire stages, but there are things on it that are expensive and not that hard to get back and a lot easier to reuse a number of times. Maybe that's the right way to approach reusability."

So the plan is to have parts of the rocket break off, with a heat shield and parachute to slow them down. A helicopter will then approach the parts and grab them in midair, then land with them. Bruno says that this will allow the company to recover the most expensive parts, without having to solve the incredibly complex problem of how to make a rocket fly back to and land on the launching pad that it took off from.

Whether it works, or whether it is ultimately better than what SpaceX is trying to do, is anyone's guess. By 2019, when this thing launches, ​SpaceX may be regularly reusing its rockets (it is ​going to try to recover a rocket on Tuesday). But if we eventually end up with two companies that can both reuse rockets, the price of spaceflight could come down in a hurry, and that's good for everyone.