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United Launch Alliance (ULA)

Contributor(s): Corinne Bernstein

United Launch Alliance (ULA) is a private aerospace launch provider. Formed in 2006, ULA is a joint venture between The Boeing Company and Lockheed Martin Corporation. ULA  provides spacecraft launch services to United States government agencies - such as the Department of Defense, NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office.  ULA also provides launch services for non-government satellites. ULA company headquarters are in Centennial, Colorado.  Manufacturing, assembly and integration operations are in Decatur, Alabama, and Harlingen, Texas. Launch operations are at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. 

Currently, ULA subsidiary United Launch Services LLC (ULS) contracts launch services using the Atlas and Delta launch vehicles. The Atlas and Delta families have been used for more than 50 years.  Atlas and Delta have been used to to carry weather, telecommunications and national security satellites; also, they supported deep space and interplanetary exploration missions in support of scientific research. The Delta 4, designed by Boeing, and the Atlas 5, built by Lockheed Martin, were developed for the Air Force as expendable launch vehicles for high-priority national security payloads. Long-term, ULA plans to replace the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets.  The intended replacement is a powerful, less-expensive, and partly-reusable launcher known as Vulcan. ULA is targeting mid-2020 for the maiden flight of the Vulcan.  The heavy payload launch vehicle is believed to help ULA compete with companies such as Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin

Payloads

Delta 4 Heavy, which used to be the world's most powerful operational rocket, can send nearly 32 tons of payload (more than the weight of two standard school buses) into low-Earth orbit.  However, Vulcan will be able to boost 80,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit; or up to 35,900 pounds to the elliptical geosynchronous transfer orbits (GTO) used by communications satellites bound for operational stations 22,300 above the equator. Vulcan will be:

  • 28 feet tall
  • its initial version will have two U.S.-made first stage-engines
  • up to six solid-fuel strap-on boosters
  • an upgraded Centaur second stage with up to four engines

Later versions will have reusable first-stage engines and an advanced upper stage known as the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage, or ACES.  ULA is aiming to introduce this in 2024. ACES is a liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen upper-stage rocket expected to boost satellite payloads to geosynchronous orbit or, in the case of an interplanetary space probe, to escape velocity.

The least powerful version of the Vulcan rocket - without solid-fuel boosters and the ACES upper stage - is expected to start at less than $100 million. The base version of ULA's Atlas 5 rocket is currently about $109 million. A Delta 4 Heavy costs $350 million per launch (a figure that is high because the latter is not reusable), in contrast to SpaceX's $90 million Falcon Heavy. The Vulcan's engines, which account for two-thirds of the cost of the stage, will be recovered and reused after every flight.

This was last updated in June 2020

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