Interviewing Tory Bruno, leading the company that has launched every NASA mission to Mars

“Atlas V is the most accurate rocket in the world.”

Left: The Atlas V rocket of United Launch Alliance (ULA) taking off with NASA’s Curiosity rover inside the fairing. Right: Tory Bruno, CEO and President of ULA. Image credits: ULA

Glued to the Apollo landings, an eight year Tory Bruno became fascinated with rocketry. After graduating as a mechanical engineer, he worked at Lockheed Martin for several years on increasingly complex projects, eventually making the transition from engineer to executive. Today he is CEO and President of United Launch Alliance (ULA)—the company whose rockets have launched every NASA mission to Mars.

Tory is one of my favorite space people and a big inspiration so I was thrilled to get to interview him! The interview was conducted for Supercluster on July 23 just before ULA successfully launched NASA’s Mars 2020 mission. We talk about ULA’s unique capabilities and future plans to enable solar system exploration. The responses have been edited for brevity, and some links and images have been added for the reader’s benefit. You can listen to the audio version of the interview too.

ULA and its heritage rockets have launched every NASA mission to Mars, ranging from the Mariner 4 in the 1960s, which gave us our first close look at Mars, to modern orbiters like MAVEN, landers like Insight and sophisticated rovers like Curiosity in the more than 50 years since. How has ULA adapted to the ever-increasing scope and demands of NASA’s Mars missions?

There are a few notable things that have become more challenging as NASA has taken on increasingly ambitious Mars missions. In the first category, just the mass of the spacecraft has increased significantly. The Mars 2020 spacecraft carrying the Perseverance rover is more massive compared to anything that has been placed on Mars till date. It’s just under the limit of what our powerful rocket, Atlas V, can carry in its maxed out configuration.

The next thing in these kinds of missions is the orbital insertion accuracy or precision that is required. We’re aiming to put the spacecraft at a point in Mars orbit that is many millions of miles ahead of where Mars is at that moment. The spacecraft needs to arrive at that point when Mars arrives there, and be captured by its gravity and its atmosphere and then descend in specific ways. This takes an unimaginable level of accuracy and the spacecraft itself has very limited ability to adjust its trajectory across these huge distances. If the rocket is off by just the slightest amount, the spacecraft can’t do anything about it. It’ll fly right past Mars, never making the mission. And so one of the most special things about Atlas V is its orbital accuracy. It’s the most accurate rocket in the world. And we continue to improve that every chance we get, to enable increasingly sophisticated missions for NASA.

Another really complex part about the Perseverance rover is its nuclear power source whose heat is used to generate electricity. It adds a level of complexity for pre-launch preparations. We have to install it into the spacecraft very near the end, just a few days before launch. It gets complex further because we also have to pay attention to what we call planetary protection, which essentially means not contaminating Mars with Earth life such as bacteria and viruses. So inside our integration facility, against the rocket 20 stories up in the air, we have constructed a portable clean room to create an ultra clean and sterile environment to conduct what is a multi-day operation to install this nuclear device. All of these things make it a very complicated and unique kind of mission.

Let’s say the rocket blows up — since that’s technically possible, despite all the care you put in. How do you ensure safety on Earth from this nuclear source the rocket is carrying?

So the first thing of course is having all of these very careful procedures to make sure the nuclear power source is handled correctly and safely going into the rocket, and that the rocket itself is well prepared to have a best possible chance of success. Another thing on the rocket side is that for a mission like this with a device like this, we launch out of Cape Canaveral to take our one million pound rocket full of explosives and this nuclear device directly away from shore and out into the broad open ocean area, steering clear from any habitats.

Left: The nuclear device powering deep space missions like Mars 2020. Credit: NASA. Right: Radioactive plutonium-238 dioxide pellet, used in NASA’s Cassini mission as a power source. Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

Now I’ll jump to the device side itself. The Plutonium-238 source emits alpha radiation, which can be stopped literally with just a sheet of paper. It cannot penetrate your skin. And so the containing device itself entirely stops the alpha radiation. As a person, your only danger from it would be if you were to ingest it or inhale it. Next, the source is actually made in the form of plutonium dioxide, an extremely stable compound and with a very high melting point, which makes it very difficult to vaporize it. This makes it even harder to get the source in that state where you could potentially get it inside your body if you somehow even managed to get near it.

Third, the device is packaged in a reentry shell, designed to survive a rocket failure itself. Even if a failure occurs at a very high altitude, say in our upper stage before it’s orbital, the protective shell is capable of bringing the device all the way back down to Earth despite the heat of a reentry. Historically, that has actually happened twice, though not on our rockets. During these failures, these devices in their shells came all the way down to Earth, landing in the ocean if I remember correctly, without being breached and were recovered and used again in later exploration missions. So this is a very safe energy source.

Mars 2020 costs north of $2 billion, as did its predecessor Curiosity. What capabilities and assurances does ULA provide that NASA trusts you with these flagship robotic missions instead of choosing other launch providers?

In addition to the unique precision capabilities we discussed, built into what we offer, and really into our culture, is complete transparency. From even before the contract was awarded, we have been completely open with them. They’re in our facilities, they have access to every bit of engineering data we produce, they can sit in every review and so on, meaning they know every step of the way what is happening with their launch, and have a voice in what they’re comfortable with, or not so. So we’re really doing this together as a partnership.

Let’s talk about precision. Even a small error in injecting spacecraft on trajectories to Mars could mean loss of the entire mission. How do ULA rockets deliver such precision?

It’s really in some very sophisticated guidance algorithms, as well as how the propulsive elements of the rocket operate together. People often think of accuracy just in terms of the quality of sensors, like the IMU, gyros, GPS and so on. But knowing where you are and knowing where that trajectory flies is only one element of accuracy. You also have to be able to actually control the path of the rocket and especially the conditions of that upper stage at the moment you want to separate from the spacecraft. Our rockets can very precisely control when the thrust is on, when it is off and exactly how repeatable that transition is from on to off so as to compensate for that with the guidance.

We also have very sophisticated algorithms, software if you will, to deal with things that occur during flight that are not ideal, like flying through atmospheric conditions with different densities. These algorithms can account for all of those deviations happening during flight and make autonomous adjustments to the trajectory, and have the rocket still arrive at that point in space at that moment in space when we intend to separate from the spacecraft and then very precisely let it go. All of that stuff working together is our secret sauce. If you were NASA, you would get to see all of that. No one else does (chuckles).

In 2018, ULA launched NASA’s InSight mission to Mars alongside the first interplanetary CubeSats (small satellites), the MarCO pair. Their job was to relay telemetry of the InSight landing. While typical Marsbound spacecraft can correct for minor variations in their trajectories, CubeSats can’t do so to the same extent. So I imagine unless the rocket does its job with mission-critical precision, such CubeSats would never reach Mars and be able to do their job. How did the Atlas V manage such synchronization?

So we’re not well known for this, but we fly a lot of CubeSats, and our Centaur upper stage has standard accommodations for those. When we were talking about the orbital insertion accuracy of the main spacecraft, all of that applies to the CubeSats too of course. But in addition, the integration of the CubeSats and its deployment device from NASA and the accommodating mechanism on our upper stage also play an important part. We again work hand-in-glove with them so that we both understand how our upper stage interacts with their deployment device to push the CubeSats within the desired level of accuracy without having to worry about them not having enough correction capability during traverse as in a standard spacecraft.

Speaking of that upper stage, the Centaur III, does it offer other benefits for deep space missions than precision orbital injections?

Well, yes. You will observe when we launch Mars 2020 at the end of next week that we have giant two hour launch windows. That is very unusual. Other launch providers can often only do an instantaneous launch window. What’s going on there is one has to wait for the Earth to rotate around and align with the path out to Mars. So the launch window opens up and they gotta go within five minutes and that’s it for the day.

But because of the performance of our main booster and the ability of the Centaur upper stage to compensate, we can stretch that tiny window out to actually a big two hour span. Having that flexibility and versatility gives us even more opportunities, in cases like bad weather or say problems at the launchpad, to still take off earlier than would otherwise be possible. The performance of the Centaur also allows us to do long coasts to come around the planet and get lined up exactly right even if we didn’t launch at the ideal time if it were instantaneous, and then provide that insertion accuracy that we talked about.

While you are launching NASA’s Lucy next year, SpaceX has won contracts to launch NASA’s upcoming DART and Psyche missions. How do you plan on ensuring ULA’s continued legacy of enabling Mars missions in the future and others in the solar system? Where does your upcoming rocket Vulcan-Centaur fit in this scheme?

We really like to focus on the most difficult space missions that require the greatest flexibility and the greatest precision from the rocket. That is where we have made our investments and the Vulcan rocket debuting next year doubles down on that. It provides more launch flexibility for these big launch windows. It has a Centaur V upper stage, which is an upgraded version of the current Centaur III.

The Centaur V will have over two times as much energy and twice as much thrust, which matters in certain circumstances, and a whole host of things to further improve both the system’s accuracy and the size of the spacecraft that it can deliver for interplanetary missions. It’ll also have the ability to go for even longer durations between burns, to enable it to take on even more complex trajectories for ambitious future missions.

ULA’s upcoming Centaur V upper stage compared to the existing Centaur III in their rockets. Credit: ULA

Two of the three companies NASA recently selected for returning humans to the Moon as part of its Artemis program will be using the Vulcan rocket. To what extent are you guys involved in Artemis? Do you see this as a key part of your vision to have 1000 humans working in space in 30 years?

Yes, I absolutely do. So we are deeply involved in those two opportunities to put humans on the Moon again. I’ll also put in a plug for our exciting mission to take the first commercial lander to the lunar surface, the Peregrine lander built by Astrobotic. That will launch ahead of the human missions as part of the Artemis program, flying next year on Vulcan’s maiden flight.

And yes, Artemis absolutely is the very first step of the Cislunar 1000 vision of this self-sustaining cislunar marketplace and economy, and people living permanently off-planet, all of which can be enabled thanks to the discovery of water on the Moon.

India played a very important part in its discovery with the Chandrayaan spacecraft. A year later, we had the honor of following that up with our LCROSS mission, where we smashed a Centaur into a crater on the Moon’s south pole, throwing up a water plume that a following spacecraft could fly through and directly measure. So together we have made the discoveries that are going to make this vision possible.


It was fun talking with you Jatan, those were great questions. And my regards to your readers – This is such an exciting time to be in space and boy, are we excited about launching the mission!

Mars 2020 launch graphic. Credit: ULA

Originally published at Supercluster, a website dedicated to telling humanity's greatest outer space stories.

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