A United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan VC2S rocket launches its first certification mission from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, Jan. 8, 2024.

A United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan VC2S rocket launches its first certification mission from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, Jan. 8, 2024. U.S. Space Force / DeAnna Murano

ULA has an ambitious plan to ‘reuse’ Vulcan rocket: keep it in space

The heavy-lift rocket’s upper stage might extend its service as a tug or defender.

Faced with competitors building their own reusable heavy-lift rocket, United Launch Alliance is devising plans to keep the upper stage of its Vulcan Centaur rockets in space, where they might tug satellites or counter Chinese threats.

These upper stages could be loaded with more propellant than needed for their initial launch duties, allowing them to stay in orbit and handle other tasks for weeks or months, ULA CEO Tory Bruno told Defense One on the sidelines of the Space Symposium conference.

“I can go off and serve a spacecraft and move spacecraft and get in between Chinese anti-satellite weapons on orbit and things we're trying to protect. I can do all kinds of missions that are with a reusable upper stage,” Bruno said. 

Vulcan wasn’t designed to be “reused” in the typical sense—i.e., return to Earth—which will make it difficult for the company to compete on cost with SpaceX once its reusable mega-rocket Starship becomes operational. But ULA’s idea to keep the Centaur upper stage in space could open up new missions for the company.  

“It takes a satellite weeks to maneuver in its orbit, and it can only do it a couple of times before it's out of propellant. This is a rocket. It's got two orders of magnitude more thrust, more than that amount of energy, even if it's only half full, it can fly around anywhere in Earth orbit in hours, where it takes satellites weeks to do that, and it can do many orbital changes,” Bruno said.

Bruno envisions “a whole fleet of them up there, building up over time as I'm flying, flying, flying in the air, lasting longer and longer and longer, available to do missions to help us cope with this threat.”

Reusing the rocket’s upper stage for other missions in space could become a reality in a “couple of years,” Bruno said, but didn’t disclose details because it’s “competition sensitive.” 

Bruno also said Vulcan, which has two versions of its upper stage—one optimized for low-Earth orbit and one optimized for high-energy missions that need to reach geosynchronous orbit—could have a third version of the upper stage “coming soon” and “maybe a fourth one after that.”

But the rocket, which had its maiden flight in January, likely won’t fly again until the fall, in part due to delays with the payload: Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser vehicle.  

If Dream Chaser isn’t ready by September, Bruno said, he has other options lined up to fly on the rocket.  

“I’ve got a backup plan. I’ve got two backup plans, because it's really important. I actually have three, but I can't tell you what they are, because Dream Chaser is going to be there on time, and we're going to go to the Space Station,” he said.  

ULA needs this second certification flight before it can start flying missions for the Space Force. Company officials previously said they plan to fly four national security missions this year, but “with Sierra Space on the Cert-2 mission now moving to no earlier than September, we have three Vulcan NSSL missions planned for the remainder of the year but will fly when our customers are ready,” the company said in a statement. 

After it achieves certification, ULA has to increase its launch cadence almost tenfold, an unprecedented task for the company, which only launched three rockets in 2023. Bruno said they’ll be launching every two weeks by the back half of 2025. 

Bruno said the biggest bottleneck to a higher launch cadence is the time it takes to assemble the 25-story rocket in a special building called the vertical integration facility, or the “VIF.” He said the company is “almost done” building a second one that will allow them to build two rockets simultaneously.

Beyond the VIF, the company has to double basically all of its infrastructure, including building up the company’s “small but mighty Navy” and ground transportation. ULA is building a second rocket-hauling ship to transport Vulcan to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida or through the Panama Canal out to Vandenberg in California.

ULA’s suppliers are stepping up as well, Bruno said. Vulcan is “essentially tripling the country’s capacity for large solid rocket motors” through Northrop Grumman, which builds the solids for Vulcan, and is setting up a new casting facility in Utah. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, which builds the main engine for Vulcan, is also building another factory in Alabama to keep up with demand. 

Challenges with developing the Blue Origin engine, BE-4, have contributed to delays with Vulcan’s original launch date. Blue Origin is finally up and running, “but it will be tight,” Bruno said. The company is “won't start getting ahead until the beginning of 2026, so they'll support us, but I won't have the excess inventory,” he said.

ULA is looking at reusing the BE-4 engine, but that’s a few years away, according to company officials. 

Meanwhile, reports over the past year have signaled that the joint Lockheed Martin-Boeing venture could be up for sale, and Blue Origin has emerged as a finalist. While nothing has formally been announced, and Bruno declined to comment on the rumors, the CEO said there aren’t any financial consequences for the company’s plans to scale up if it doesn’t have a buyer. 

“Do I need an influx of capital that would come from some buyer or some IPO or whatever things that normally would happen? No, all of this stuff is paid for already. And, as we go forward, every healthy business is investing in itself, and we'll keep investing in ourselves to do all these really cool things,” Bruno said. 

The company received a huge amount of cash from the Space Force’s National Security Space Launch program and from Amazon, to launch its mega-constellation to LEO to provide high speed internet, called Kuiper, which is set to compete against SpaceX’s Starlink. 

The Kuiper contract “was the largest commercial space contract of any kind, so that puts us in a great position with a giant backlog of missions, and allowed us to invest literally billions of dollars in infrastructure to make the launch rate that goes with that, both in ourselves and our supply chain,” Bruno said.