ULA Stage Recovery

George had a thought in comments on the last post that could easily be relevant. If SpaceX starts reusing the Falcon9 cores, which are the cheapest cores in current production, then how much more financial sense would it make to reuse the SLS cores? The success of SpaceX could put pressure on NASA via the taxpayer to save the hundreds of millions of dollars per launch of the SLS system.

NASA may be the wrong target. ULA has quite expensive Atlas and Delta cores that they should have a financial interest in recovering. The Atlas could use some fairly small kerosene/LOX engines from in-house or any number of suppliers, including XCOR and Masten. Any number of small firms now have in-house expertise on vertical landing systems. Adding a small number of pressure fed engines for the landing sequence would add weight and complexity, with these engines optimized for sea level operation could also be used to increase allowable GLOW.

After main engine cutoff of the booster, residual propellant could be pumped into one of the empty helium spheres. There will be time in between main engine cutoff to compress helium from the main tanks into the new repurposed landing tanks. It seems possible that a minimal amount of hardware would but need to be added to the stage.

The Delta system could use the RL 10 and Delta Clipper software so as to use the same hydrogen propellant as the RS 68. This could use known systems to recover quite expensive hardware.

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I do construction for a living and aerospace as an occasional hobby. I am an inventor and a bit of an entrepreneur. I've been self employed since the 1980s and working in concrete since the 1970s. When I grow up, I want to work with rockets and spacecraft. I did a stupid rocket trick a few decades back and decided not to try another hot fire without adult supervision. Haven't located much of that as we are all big kids when working with our passions.

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About johnhare

I do construction for a living and aerospace as an occasional hobby. I am an inventor and a bit of an entrepreneur. I've been self employed since the 1980s and working in concrete since the 1970s. When I grow up, I want to work with rockets and spacecraft. I did a stupid rocket trick a few decades back and decided not to try another hot fire without adult supervision. Haven't located much of that as we are all big kids when working with our passions.
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21 Responses to ULA Stage Recovery

  1. Vanzetti says:

    Where exactly are Delta IV, Atlas V or the SLS going to put those additional landing engines? Won’t in necessitate a complete redesign of the bottom?

  2. ken anthony says:

    Once reusability is demonstrated, how could others not be under such pressure? But if they didn’t at least have it in the back of their minds on initial design they may find lots of issues on redesign that they would not have otherwise.

    At least we will always have nuclear options. We could lower the cost of crew simply by sending more at at time when the market finally gets here. $140M for 7 on F9 ($20M ea.) could become $200M for 100 on FH ($2M ea.)

  3. And there is the in space stage reuse advocates,

    A number of years ago I mused with Mr Bernard Kutter of ULA about the idea of keeping LHe 2 cool with a fuel depot.The LHE 2 was for transfer to cryogenic space telescope. Later I discarded the idea in favor of a fuel tanker delivering the cryogenic helium to space telescope and then making its fuel depot run.

    On selenium boondocks I posted comments on ideas of hybrid chemical ion hybrid in space stages but now I would like to write more about disposal burns that could be further optimized with a cryogenic Xenon in space powered ion engine

    If Ms Gravelee is no longer ULA chief of the fuel depot program there I hope she is on the SLS ACES/EUS work.


    the new ULA paper by Gravlee is a must read :):):)

  4. john hare says:


    At first glance, the seems to be enough room on the bottom of the Atlas V and Delta IV stages. SLS looks a bit more crowded. The redesign that would be required should be balanced against getting the hardware back financially.

  5. You could also land horizontally-DTAL style. That would require shorter landing gear, and would allow some of the engines to be located up in the interstage area.

    Just speculation on my part. I know ULA folks are interested in reuse and have been refining concepts for a while, but I’m not sure where things stand today. I thought it was interesting that all of my ULA friends I’ve spoken with are rooting for SpaceX to succeed at recovering a first stage, as they think that will finally sway management to look at reuse in-house.


  6. jccooper says:

    Seems like they could always bolt on some side fairings/pods if you can’t find space on the bottom. Might look a bit like the Atlas. Some aero penalty, but dedicated landing engines aren’t going to be that big. Might even be able to build it into a leg structure, for little or no additional aero impact.

    I’ve been wondering if you could put the landing engine(s) on the top, in the interstage, and land upside down. You wouldn’t be able to use them for takeoff assist, and it’d probably give the structural engineers a fit, but there’s plenty of room.

  7. john hare says:

    Landing engines in the interstage area makes me think of a Roton helicopter landing with fold out blades. Drag stabilization for reentry, autorotation for control and deceleration, and rocket power in the tips for the final approach and landing. I seem to recall that pilot reports were that the Roton was a handful to fly.

  8. John,
    I’m a big fan of autogyrating helicopter landings too. It is probably harder for long skinny stages if you insist on the helicopter blades coming out the top and landing on legs down near the engines. That said, IIRC, Roton was flown with almost no computer-provided stability control. With all the crazy stuff people do with quad rotors, I wonder how hard a rocket stage helicopter autopilot would be.


  9. I am hoping Santa and his deer bring to me to night a DTAL with a decadel survey small fission reactors radiator in the Oxygen tank to recover additional power with an Argon or Xenon ullage gas and an extra set of stirling engines…………………….
    reuse of DTAL style in some dark lunar polar crater
    Here are some rocket plumbers with truly warped minds!

    Their warped minds are on thermodynamics on a vast scale as compared to operating a fission reactor in a spent chemical rocket stage.I to like the ULA folks, they have encourage me with kind words to keep dreaming up in space stages that can operate as small fission reactor heat sinks, after all this type of reuse means you could have a spent stage as spacecraft ( like LCROSS) in the outer solar system without RTG’s.

    one of B Kutter earliest papers from 2006 describes a long lived cryogenic upper stage n a planetary mission in one sentence……………………
    yes reuse :):)

    I and others have mused about Delta heavy and SpaceX heavy being able to loft a center stage with little cargo all the way to orbit for some sort of reuse on a grand scale :):):)

  10. DougSpace says:

    Could SpaceX create a super Falcon Heavy by clustering six cores around a central core thereby getting towards the SLS Block 2 capability?

    Another question. Could one simply design launchers so that the engines detach, reenter the atmosphere with some heat shield if going fast enough, and then parachute for an air capture? It would only recover the engines but that is the most expensive part and you wouldn’t have to deal with stabilizing the reentry of the elongated tankage.

  11. johnhare johnhare says:

    Falcon super heavy is certainly theoretically possible. Somehow your question about engine only recovery made me think of the early V2 recovery technique at White Sands of blowing off the nose. Aerodynamics were screwed up enough that terminal velocity was quite low. I wonder if the stage tanks could be blown out in a high drag mess. Detach engines at low altitude for air recovery.

  12. George Turner says:

    Doug, reading your comment, I just had an idea for re-entering a second stage engine as a separate piece and keeping it fully enclosed the whole way. It would probably only be justified for recovering something like an RL-10, but here goes.

    You redesign the bottom of the upper stage’s lower tank so that it is an inverted section of a sphere (the top side of it will form the heat shield when the rest of the tank is discarded) with the usual 1/4 depth ratio. The rest of the tank is attached with a locking ring or some other mechanism for easy detachment.

    You design the interstage as interlocking triangular fingers (or truncated triangles), somewhat like petals coming from both stages, and which when mated together form the usual cylinder during launch. At separation the bottom ones stay with the first stage (or fall away) while the top ones retract backward to get fully out of the way of the exhaust from the second stage engine, thus protecting some delicate bits needed for re-entry and splashdown.

    After the second stage burn, the payload is jettisoned and the stage rotates around for a deceleration burn. Then the tank is detached from the engine section and the interstage’s petals close back on themselves, forming a roughly shaped (and probably truncated) cone with seals in between the petals to keep seawater out, and looking much like an Apollo capsule. The parachutes are at the new cone’s apex, and at that point you just do a regular capsule style re-entry.

    I’m not sure if it’s financially justifiable or if the weight and complexity would be too much, but it doesn’t seem all that difficult to do. If it works, the second stage engine can be recovered without ever even being exposed to a hostile environment.

  13. Kibble says:

    Excuse me, I don’t mean to interrupt with a comment irrelevant to the discussion, four years ago, Kirk Sorensen wrote a post on this blog describing a spacecraft using nuclear electric propulsion mounted on a Canfield joint to fix the problems associated with rotating for artificial gravity. A quote:

    “Over the years since this realization, I’ve developed the capability to show how such a vehicle might look as it rotates. Here’s the link to a Java code that will show the vehicle rotating along with the Canfield joints. You can click and drag to rotate the view around and zoom in and out with the mouse wheel.”

    The link Mr. Sorensen mentioned unfortunately no longer works. Since I only recently started reading this blog, and was not around (Or even in high school yet!) when this was posted, I didn’t have the opportunity to see it. Do you know if the file described still exists, and if so, if Mr. Sorensen could provide an updated link?

    Thanks for your consideration <3

  14. Tracy the Troll says:

    Could someone please explain why SpaceX…is taking the lead in reusability and the legacy companies are following?

  15. john hare says:


    Things tend to get done as a function of need times desire times ability with enough vision to see the connections. N*D*A^V A zero or <1 in any of these fields result in things not happening. The legacy companies at the corporate level seldom see a real need, desire only to keep doing the things that keep funds flowing (read keep congress happy), certainly have the ability, but are lacking the vision at the corporate level. Elon Musk seems to be the first one that can get a positive number greater than 1 in all of these fields at the same time.

    In common terms that I (and hopefully others) can relate to. If you don't need a Ferrari, but have the desire and ability to get one, then you will only keep the car as long as you are fascinated with it. Apollo. If you don't desire a Ferrari, you won't get one, regardless of need and ability. Delta Clipper. If you are not able to afford a Ferrari, need and desire are irrelevant, Bush VSE etc…If you don't have vision, nothing happens regardless of the other three criteria. Ability being both financial and technical requires a resonance of the two.

    This is a short holiday answer of course. One that I wouldn't post at Americaspace as it would just lead to heat of argument without much light. Every attempt to create reusability up until now has had serious lack in one or more of the N,D,A, or V positions. Most of the serious attempts to create reusability that I am aware of are dealing with major ability shortages on the financial side.

    I may do a post on this at some time if people are interested in my take on the subject. It would just be one among many that have been done over the years which probably would make it fairly uninteresting. Partly because I don't see deliberate villians, just people working in their own perceived self interest.

  16. gbaikie says:

    — Tracy the Troll says:
    December 25, 2014 at 9:21 pm

    Could someone please explain why SpaceX…is taking the lead in reusability and the legacy companies are following?–

    Elon Musk wants to live on Mars.

    I don’t think it is necessary to have reusable Earth lift rockets in order to live on Mars,
    rather what think is more critical is make rocket fuel in space. Or for there to rocket fuel [mostly LOX] available for around $2000 per lb at Earth/Moon L-point 1 or 2.
    Or rocket fuel available anywhere in high earth orbit is roughly same thing as being available at Earth’s L-point 1 or 2 and $2000 per lb is roughly the same as rocket fuel
    at LEO for $1000 per lb.
    Now, a reusable Earth lift rocket could make it possible for rocket fuel to be available at $1000 per lb in LEO- and in a sense it would be the same thing.
    But if the is market of rocket fuel in space, and LOX is sold at LEO for $1000 and high earth for $2000, and there water mining in space [say at lunar poles]. Then water not needing to split into rocket fuel is cheaper per lb than the LOX made from it.
    So if LOX is 2000 per lb, the water would be cheaper than 2000 per lb- say less than 1500 per lb. And for humans to travel to Mars, they need + 10 times their weight in water, maybe as much as 100 times.
    So to get people to Mars from say LEO, per person one need 10 times [more] of their weight in water [plus other things like food and breathable air {LOX}]. Or essentially or mostly one is sending water to Mars with the human being an insignificant mass fraction.
    So perhaps one can see that having cheap drinkable water at high earth orbit at low cost could be important aspect of getting people to Mars.

    But probably more significant is one lower the cost of water and rocket fuel at high orbit more easily [1/2 or 1/10th] the cost as compare the Earth launch cost.
    And the value of going to Mars seems to me to related not having 10 or 100 people living on Mars, but rather starting 10 or 100 people and having thousands people in future going to Mars. Being the first wave of people living on Mars is more valuable than the rarity of there being only one wave of people going to Mars.
    Some people might think a flag and footprint mission is more important than exploration- but I don’t.

  17. Tracy,
    Actually the answer may be fairly simple economics. Right now at current launch prices, demand is not very elastic. That means that if you cut the price in half, you get less than twice the number of customers. So the total revenue of the industry and existing providers goes down. The only way you make more profit is if your costs are dropping faster than prices, and/or that you’re gaining in market share from other competitors. And since cutting costs usually requires investment, the business case for that investment may not actually close for an incumbent provider, even though they have the technical talent to do so, barring a hungry upstart.

    In the case of a hungry upstart, the only way they can gain market share is by offering a lower price, because few will believe they’ll be as reliable or capable. And since they’re starting from zero revenue and zero market share, it doesn’t hurt their bottom line to undercut the existing prices.

    So, it’s not at all surprising that SpaceX is taking the lead on innovation–they have to to get any market share, and the incumbent providers have no good incentive to lead.

    The more interesting question is what happens now that SpaceX is innovating. Hopefully it will be an exciting ride. ULA has interest and talent to do some level of reusability, and that equation is changing now that it’s becoming more and more evident that SpaceX is for real, and may make reusability work. Not all incumbents survive such market disruption. Sometimes they adapt by moving out of the market into new markets. Sometimes they compete by reinventing themselves and taking the best lessons from their competitors. We’ll see. Personally I hope we have at least 2-3 good, healthy RLV competitors come out of this.


  18. Mike S says:

    Im not the brightest bulb in the box and I can line up more than a few to testify to that, but why cant you do the same thing with boosters that they just did with Orion…heat shielding/balloots to get you thru the heat of re-entry than Pop 3 or more big chutes for the 20mph gentle decent?

  19. Peterh says:

    A heat shield and parachutes get you to ground level, not back to the launch site. A dunk in the ocean tends to be rough on hardware. There’s also the complication that rocket stages tend to be very tail heavy, making reentry at any attitude other than engine first difficult.

  20. Kevin says:

    I’ve never really apeovrpd of the use of rockets to launch stuff into space they cause too much damage to the environment, and they only ever get used once. I guess they’ve been a necessary evil for a while, but now that there are space planes on the drawing boards, I think those should be pursued as an alternative to those one-use rockets.Take those Boeing 747 variants used exclusively for cargo.

  21. johnhare johnhare says:

    You are aware that spaceplanes use rockets too, right?

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