Shooting stars streak through the night sky above Florida's Space Coast as the Perseid meteor shower approaches its peak. Mars glows red in the predawn hours, hovering over the crowds of onlookers. But the people gathered here at Kennedy Space Center have not come to view these astronomical phenomena.
On the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the 30-story-tall Delta IV Heavy is already loaded with 460,000 gallons of fuel. An ominous warning about security responsibility blares over the loudspeaker. The $ 1.5 billion Parker Solar Probe sits atop the rocket, ready for its 3:31 am. liftoff.
In the minutes before the building-sized vehicle attempts to break the grip of gravity, the crowd goes silent. Then suddenly the countdown begins over the loudspeakers. Before the clock hits zero, a bright orange blaze engulfs the lower half of the rocket-a quirk of its RS-68A engines firing up-mimicking the sun itself and illuminating the surrounding area.
A wave of plumes rolls out from the launch pad as the huge Delta IV Heavy lifts off for the tenth time ever. It takes a few moments for the sound waves to reach the crowd, roaring through the coastline and shaking
Parker's Solar Probe is on its way to discoveries that could be a part of the world's largest solar system. answer some of the biggest questions in astronomy and physics, but the future of space exploration also hinges on the rocket that carried the craft and the fate of the company th at built that rocket-United Launch Alliance.
Launch for the History Books
An astonished look takes over 91-year-old Eugene Parker's face. The heavy-lift rocket's payload is Parker's namesake, a probe built to fly closer to the sun than any before it. Its mission: To investigate solar wind and study extreme particle physics.
But shortly after the thrill of liftoff, concerned murmurs spread throughout the space center. The spacecraft has been successfully split as planned, and the spacecraft has been successfully split as planned. The second round of applause rolls across Kennedy Space Center.
The Parker Solar Probe has begun a journey t or fly within 4 million miles of the sun's surface, into the solar crown, a five-million-mile-thick superheated atmosphere of charged particles. From the corona, these particles collectively flow into space as solar wind.
It was Eugene Parker who theorized the existence of solar wind, a then-controversial idea that space was not a completely empty vacuum, but rather a theater of energetic particles flowing from our host star. Parker, who is the first living human to have a NASA spacecraft named for him, first published his theory in 1958 to a significant scorn of peers in the astrophysics community.
The 31-year-old professor at the University of Chicago at the time, Parker (NASA), the NASA Space Coast (NASDAQ: NASDAQ) and NASA's Space Coast but it was not the first time that he was involved in the race. and $ 10 that ULA's heavy launcher would go off without a hitch.
Parker would have won his bet. The Solar Probe is far from the first high priority science mission to be successfully launched by United Launch Alliance. The question now for the Centennial, Colorado-based rocket company is how to adapt to emerging competition from companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, billionaire-funded startups manufacturing cheap, reusable vehicles and gobbling up market share as they go
A Veteran Rocket Company Looks to the Future
United Launch Alliance was the first launcher for US military-the most lucrative client for aerospace contractors. In 2014, ULA launched 10 national security missions. This year, with four months left in 2018, it has only flown a pair of them. SpaceX has dramatically altered the playing field with its Falcon 9, the most launched rocket of 2017, used to compete for military contracts.
Today, Air Force contracts that were once shoo-in for ULA are starting to go to SpaceX. NASA is also flying high priority missions on SpaceX's rockets now, too. For this new arena of competition, ULA is building a new workhorse rocket-a reusable one. In 2014, the company started development on the Vulcan, a rocket with recoverable first-stage engines that is expected to eventually replace the fleet of Atlas and Delta rockets.
ULA believes that recovering and reusing just the engines is the The company is considering engines built by both Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne to power the first stage of Vulcan, but it has yet to make a After a launch, the Vulcan's pair of booster engines would shut down and detach from the first stage to be caught in mid-air by a helicopter technology that NASA is helping to fund
Will recover just the engines make a Vulcan can be strapped with up to six extra solid rocket boots rs to reach up to 3.8 million pounds of thrust, outperforming even the Delta IV Heavy while flying for about a third of the cost. With Delta IV Heavy's $ 350 million price tag up against a (fully recoverable) $ 90 million Falcon Heavy, Vulcan begins to look like a solid option in an industry where the days of expendable rockets are limited.
ULA will have to contend not only with the Falcon fleet of rockets, but also with New Glenn, being built by Blue Origin and the new Omega rocket from Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (formerly Orbital ATK).
Keeping the Most Important Spacecraft
Now that the 1,424-pound Parker Solar Probe is far beyond the lunar orbit, on its own, way to an October Flyby of Venus United Launch Alliance can boast 129 consecutive successful launches since its founding in 2006. The company, an outfit formed by veteran aerospace manufacturers Boeing and Lockheed Martin, also adds a legacy of storied missions launched for NASA.
The Delta IV Heavy is completely separated from its service tower and ready for launch. Astronauts are at work training on Boeing's Starliner crew capsule. Astronaut Chris Ferguson, the commander of the final space shuttle mission, says the race is on to return human spaceflight to American soil. but the SpaceX and its Crew Dragon could beat ULA and Boeing to the punch.
ULA chief Bruno peers over the historic la unch pad, the site of Apollo 5, as the tower backs away and the orange paint of the monumental rocket catches the light of the evening sun. The sun may be setting on the Delta IV, but the man in the cowboy hat is determined to make sure it does not set on ULA.