SpaceX’s biggest rival has a ‘genius’ plan to cut its rocket launch costs more than 70%


An illustration of ULA’s Vulcan rocket launching toward space. (In this image, used-up rocket motors are falling back to Earth.United Launch Alliance

SpaceX turned heads around the world on February 6 with the first-ever launch of Falcon Heavy.

The 230-foot-tall rocket’s three boosters helped push Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster into space, peeled off after running low on fuel, and then careened toward Earth.

Two of the 16-story boosters rocketed to a safe landing (the third fell into the ocean), and the flight was hailed as a huge success. It proved SpaceX could lift twice as much payload to space for about 25% of the cost of its closest competitor while recycling rocket parts worth tens of millions of dollars.

That primary rival is United Launch Alliance, a company that aerospace industry titans Boeing and Lockheed Martin formed in 2005.

ULA’s largest rocket, the Delta IV Heavy, costs $350 million per launch, according to company CEO Tory Bruno. Delta IV Heavy is far more expensive that SpaceX’s $90-million Falcon Heavy in part because it isn’t reusable.

ULA plans to retire that launcher after about seven more missions, but the company is currently developing its own reusable rocket, dubbed Vulcan, to compete with innovative companies like Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

“Vulcan will first fly in mid-2020,” Bruno told Business Insider, adding that the rocket “will start at sub-$100-million” — a 70% discount compared to the company’s Delta IV Heavy.

Here’s what Vulcan will be capable of, why one ULA engineer described its recovery system as “genius,” and how the rocket may earn its keep in an increasingly crowded and challenging industry.