The United Launch Alliance (ULA) has entered the reusable launcher race with its Next Generation Launch System (NGLS), also known as the Vulcan rocket. This replacement for the current generation of launch systems will incorporate a rocket engine assembly that jettisons from the first stage and is snared in mid-air by a helicopter after reentering the Earth’s atmosphere.
In flight, the Vulcan lifts off like a conventional system, but after releasing its payload, the first-stage booster engine assembly detaches and re-enters atmosphere using an inflatable heat shield. After parachute deployment, the booster engine assembly is hooked and captured by a Chinook helicopter. The assembly is then recertified and reattached to a new Vulcan first stage. ULA says that this results in a 90 percent savings in propulsion costs because the engine assembly makes up 25 percent of the booster weight and 65 percent of the booster cost.
In the Six Subsectors – where everything is on a budget, and expensive, out-of-area technology tends to get abandoned – I can definitely see a place for this. And another job for the many busted starships out there with ruined jump drives – but whose maneouver drives can still kick in reliably.
(The same renewed for the various aging fleets of dodgy grav vehicles – and pilots who had the back of their chairs cut out, to make room for the parachute when the antigrav finally gives up the ghost.)