Tony Bruno is the chief executive officer at United Launch Alliance. ULA is a partnership between two major aerospace engineering companies: Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Recently, they discussed plans create a cargo carrier for space missions; a “space truck.”
The idea of course, is to take advantage of the relationships NASA has been forming through commercial contracts for sending cargo to the International Space Station. SpaceX, of course, has been the leading name in this world, but competition may become fierce.
Now, SpaceX has been experimenting with reusable rockets, an effort to reduce the cost of space travel. In the past generation, rockets would burn up after unattaching from the shuttle or spacecraft and falling back into the earth’s atmosphere; which means making new rockets every time you want to go back into space. SpaceX has been able to successfully bring these rockets back to Earth.
United Launch Alliance is one of the peripheral competitors trying to outpace SpaceX. Of course, ULA has not had much success breaking into the public attention. Perhaps after the complete their launch contract with NASA—which is due to expire in 2019—it might be a different story.
In a recent interview, Bruno noted, “We realized that you don’t have to bring it back in order for it to be reusable. That’s the big paradigm change in the way that you look at the problem – if you have an upper stage that stays on orbit and is reusable.”
For now, their second stage designs looks a bit like a fuel tank which can be both refueled and reloaded in mid-orbit. This stage would allow for waiting for cargo loads to be sent up from Earth.
ULA’s second stage design looks like a fuel tank, and can be refueled and reloaded while still in orbit, where it would wait for cargo loads sent up from Earth. With relief rockets (a la ULA’s “space trucks”) waiting in orbit, cargo loads could become very heavy but still be able to make it all the way to their final destinations.
Bruno says that once you put these second stage fuel capsules out into space, “It starts becoming practical to construct large-scale infrastructure and support economic activities in space, a transportation system between here and the moon, practical microgravity manufacturing, commercial habitats, prospecting in the asteroids.”
Finally, NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration systems, Bill Hill, noted last week, “Ultimately, our desire is to hand the space station over to either a commercial entity or some other commercial capability, so that research can continue in low-earth orbit, we figure that will be in the mid-20s.”