United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Jim Sponnick started a new job in June — vice president of Atlas and Delta programs, which combines his previous oversight of mission operations with the marketing and program management provided by retiring vice president Mark Wilkins. 

The company has racked up an impressive string of 71 successful flights since its formation 6.5 years ago, but high prices have largely driven the commercial satellite launch market overseas. Now with startup Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and others looking to break ULA’s exclusive Department of Defense contracts, Sponnick’s next challenge is to more rapidly implement cost-effective changes while still maintaining optimal performance. 

He spoke with SpaceNews correspondent Irene Klotz between back-to-back launch campaigns last month at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. 

How is your new job different from what you’ve been doing, and why the consolidation?

I had worked the Atlas program for many years, and then my counterpart and I swapped jobs and I managed the Delta program for a couple of years. That was our first incremental step as we were bringing the teams together. We did that for a couple of years, and then we transitioned to a phase where Mark was managing many of the program operations — our supply chain, our factory operations, our contracts with our customers — and I was managing the mission operations — the integration of a mission that sometimes starts two years, sometimes five years, ahead of a mission, all the way through launch. 

Now with Mark announcing his retirement at the end of June, I’ve been asked to lead the combined program, business and mission operations for Atlas and Delta. It’s the next step in bringing the teams together into one truly integrated team. We’re really looking to map out the long-term future of the Atlas and Delta systems, setting the stage for not just the remainder of this decade but the next decade beyond. At the same time we’re working what we call “accelerated continuous improvement” where we work to implement more and more effective ways to both build the rockets and process them for launch.  

How much of the push to become more efficient and more cost-effective is due to new competition, particularly from SpaceX?

With or without competition from new entrants, it’s clearly important to our customers for us to reduce our costs. These are times of declining budgets and we’ve been working for years to find ways to get more cost-effective ways to contract for the launch services and contract for all of the things that we need to be able to build the rockets and operate the systems. So definitely the pressure is there. 

If SpaceX wins some of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) business, will ULA look to compete more in the commercial market? Where are you looking to expand your business in the face of another company eating into what’s been a ULA monopoly?

When EELV started, the model at that time was that there was going to be this huge, robust commercial marketplace. We all lived through those days and of course it didn’t happen. Now our core business is national security space and the NASA science missions. An occasional commercial mission beyond that we certainly are open to. That’s one of the adjacent markets that we will continue to pursue, but we don’t see that being a significant percentage. We also of course are pursuing and actively developing our capabilities for human spaceflight on our EELV systems.

When do you think that might start showing up on your launch manifest and in your bank account?

We’re anticipating first commercial crew launches in the last half of 2016. We’re actually well along the way with developing those capabilities, such as a crew access tower for Launch Complex 41 to be able to accommodate those missions and flying astronauts, in that case on top of the Atlas. 

For a launch in late 2016, when would a contract be needed for a rocket?

Within the next year. Our typical lead time from launch service order to launch is two years. We’re already moving forward on the nonrecurring developments to accommodate it. 

If NASA is forced to down-select to one company for commercial crew development and they end up with SpaceX, would you stand down on these upgrades?

We’re operating as subcontractor to both Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp, so we’re developing the capabilities and modifying the rockets and the launch pads to support the needs of those customers. Of course, we’re also working with NASA on flying the Orion capsule on a demonstration flight next September — no crew — but it is demonstrating some of those key systems that are onboard the capsule to accommodate crew. For example, we’re making some additions to Launch Complex 37 to be able to accommodate the cooling systems that are part of the capsule to accommodate future crewed flights. 

So reading between the lines, if Boeing and/or Sierra Nevada weren’t able to support ULA working anymore on development of human-related launch infrastructure, you’d stop?

They are our customers. We would continue the development as long as there was a viable market there. 

Does ULA have any new rocket designs in the works?

Whatever we develop will be a continued evolution of the Atlas and Delta systems. We’re constantly looking at requirements that our customers are foreseeing for the long term. We’re developing new avionics system that are going to fly on both Atlas and Delta. We’re developing upgraded ordnance systems and improved structures and insulation systems that make the vehicles ever more producible and operable. We’re constantly evolving those systems, but also looking at what the missions are going to demand in the future. We’ve got a wide variety of different kinds of ride-share capabilities and one of the biggest is a large dual-launch capability that we think is a very important enabler for many of these future system architectures. With this large dual-use capability, we can launch two satellites at a time. We don’t have a specific mission set aside, but we’re developing the capability to have that dual launch flying within three years. GPS is one of the missions that would be targeted. There’s also a lot of discussion at Air Force Space Command about disaggregation and resilient future space architectures, and I do think that dual-launch capability could be a very important enabler. 

What do you make of SpaceX and the other new entrants into the space launch business?

I can certainly understand the appeal. The technology, the challenges and most importantly the missions that we’re able to launch are just beyond compare. Absolutely I understand the interest that’s out there. At the same time, there is a rather constrained marketplace. That’s one thing that we’ve learned over the decades. Unlike the lofty days of the early EELV program, those huge growth markets just do not seem to be there, so it’s going to be interesting to see how all this evolves in this constrained marketplace.

The other thing we’ve learned is that it’s more expensive to operate more systems. There’s a lot of fixed infrastructure to manage and operate and maintain a launch pad, as an example, and a factory and a test stand for a rocket engine system. All of those fixed infrastructure costs wind up being divided over the launches that exist for a given system. ULA came together because it was realized that operating two systems, especially standalone, was very expensive. We found ways to combine our factories and launch teams and cross-trained our teams to operate both systems and there are some cost-efficiencies from that, but the bottom line is more systems operating in a relatively constrained marketplace is going to be more expensive. 

Some would say this is a chicken-and-an-egg situation, that the reason the big boom in launch business hasn’t happened is because it’s expensive to launch and the prices haven’t come down. SpaceX has prices advertised on its website that ULA can’t touch. 

Price is certainly a factor. Back to the early days of EELV, clearly why Internet-in-the-sky didn’t happen is because the companies found a more cost-effective way to serve that marketplace with fiber optic and infrastructure on the Earth. The corporate decisions made were the business case of building and launching and operating many, many satellites didn’t pan out to be the most cost-effective, so price is certainly a factor. We recognize that. We’re taking lots of actions to become far more cost-effective, but at the same time it’s a very, very challenging business. It will never be cheap, but we know we can get more cost-effective. 

Are you concerned about competition from SpaceX?

We know that we have the best team in the business. We know that experiences this team has had over the decades are going to continue to be brought to bear to make our systems not only continue to operate reliably, like the 70 launches we’ve experienced in the 77 months that ULA has operated, but they’re going to continue to improve, so we are not concerned. We welcome the competition. We know that we’re in this for the long haul.