United Launch Alliance has delivered its customers’ payloads to orbit 89 times without fail during its first nine years in business, including 12 successful missions so far this year. Away from the pad, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture is fighting political, legal and public-relations battles on a newly competitive landscape.
The Denver company has been confronted by critics in Congress who view ULA as a monopoly, saw its $11 billion block buy contract with the U.S. Air Force challenged in federal court by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., faced the possibility that the Russian government could limit the export of the Russian-made RD-180 engines that power the Atlas 5 rocket’s first stage, and absorbed regular complaints from the U.S. Air Force about the price of its rockets.
Amid the tumult, the ULA board named a new chief executive: Tory Bruno.
Bruno, previously the vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin Strategic and Missile Defense Systems, has little time to learn the ins and outs of the national security community that buys the bulk of ULA’s launches.
Topping his to-do list for the next several years: maintain the near-perfect launch record that has won ULA high marks from the Defense Department; move Atlas 5 away from the RD-180 engine; beat SpaceX in the coming head-to-head matchups for national security launch contracts.
On the public relations front, ULA parried SpaceX’s commercial crew win with headline-grabbing news of its own the next day. Appearing alongside Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, Bruno announced ULA would pay Bezos’ secretive Blue Origin spaceship venture an unspecified sum to complete development of a liquefied natural gas engine that could be ready to power an Atlas 5 as soon as 2019.
In his first one-on-one interview since taking the reins at ULA in August, Bruno spoke with SpaceNews writer Mike Gruss.
When you were tapped to replace Michael Gass, what mandates were you given by ULA’s board of directors?
The board said, “It’s a new era. [ULA needs] some help being postured for that. The current CEO will be retiring. Now is the time someone can make a difference.” I was excited to do that.
The really important thing was to continue this tremendous mission focus they have. The mission success record — once you’re perfect, you really get used to that. You don’t want to let go of it while transforming the company.
There hasn’t been much competition in the national security launch market since Boeing and Lockheed formed ULA in 2006. How do you become a competitive powerhouse?
We are able to address an entire mission space that’s out there. Our competitors are just starting with nooks and crannies and mostly the lower-performance end of this mission. We already have a product family that will take everything from a tiny, lightweight spacecraft into low Earth orbit, all the way to carrying the really large payloads to geosynchronous orbit. If the launch systems are not as affordable as they can be, then the customers can’t satisfy the full set of missions. If you’re less expensive, and you have that tremendous record, it opens up whole new markets and allows us to be much more competitive in the commercial marketplace. You get cheaper to grow.
Why hasn’t ULA already done that?
It really has been underway for quite some time. By entering this big block buy we saved the Government more than $4 billion. ULA has really cut the prices of national security launch in half. What I’m really talking about is the next logical step. With that track record behind you, you can really take sort of a critical eye to your processes and the way you do business and knock more cost out. We’ve cut the cost in half. I want to cut it in half again.
How quickly can ULA achieve this cost-reduction goal?
We’re going to do it within the decade. We’re on track right now to take 30 percent out of our costs. I can see a path through not just those efficiencies but through technology updates and innovations that will take us easily to 40 percent. Then from there, we’ll find the rest of the way.
Is that enough to keep you competitive with SpaceX?
How do you see the marketplace for launch possibilities expanding in the next decade?
There are two time windows. The first one is in the next five or six years in which I see national security space and NASA and other civil space budgets being pretty stable. Once you get beyond that window we see an eventual recapitalization of the space assets that have gone up on orbit in the last few years. What’s important for us when you look at it from a ULA point of view is we will be able to address more of that commercial marketplace as we bring our price point down.
How do you change the message about ULA, which among some in Congress, at the Pentagon and in the general public is that ULA has a great track record but is expensive and nears a monopoly?
If you picture a group of rocket scientists doing these very important national security missions, the fact is they’re shy, they’re modest and they don’t really think first about talking about what they do. They depend on their record to speak for them. That was the character of this industry and the character of this company. In this environment we’re moving into, there’s going to be a lot more competition and new entrants coming in needing to make a name for themselves. That’s really not the right posture anymore. You’re going to see ULA have a much higher-profile presence. We don’t do so well with flamboyance and rhetoric but we’re pretty good about talking about facts and the real story.
Is the teaming arrangement with Blue Origin part of a wider strategy to change ULA’s reputation as an old-school operator?
We’re really not doing this for the perception impact it’s going to have. That’s going to come along for free.
How did the Blue Origin agreement come about?
We were looking for technology that we could bring into our booster that would be much less expensive to produce and buy considerably more performance and make the per launch cost less expensive. One of the things I’ve noted when we started looking seriously at these guys is the serious manner in which they were going about rocket science. There wasn’t any rhetoric or flamboyance around them. They had their heads down. They hired some of the best rocket scientists from around the industry.
How will the new BE-4 engine you’re developing with Blue Origin change the Atlas 5?
The thing that is most different about the Blue Origin engine is it burns methane, liquefied natural gas. We’re going to have to change the booster, the first stage, to accommodate that. Because of the density difference we’re going to need a larger tank. We’re going to have a larger diameter tank that may or may not be longer. There will be software modifications to accommodate the different performance and timing because this engine is going to produce a lot more thrust than we currently have with our RD-180. But beyond that it’s all the same. My vision is to update the technology. The trades for what that vehicle family looks like are still underway and they’ll be completed about the end of the year.
Why is ULA paying Aerojet Rocketdyne for AR-1 engine studies if you’ve decided on Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine?
BE-4 is our Plan A and I fully expect Blue Origin and my friend Jeff Bezos to succeed. But I have a heavy responsibility on me. In terms of Aerojet Rocketdyne, they are my upper-stage engine provider on both Atlas and Delta. They’re my Atlas solid strap-on rocket motor and they provide RS-68, which is the engine on the first-stage booster for Delta. None of that changes. We are working with them to make sure we have viable contingency plans in the event Blue Origin runs into challenges.
Will the Air Force have to recertify an Atlas 5 that uses the BE-4?
Anytime you make a major change to the launch vehicle, the Air Force has to certify that change. The degree of change determines the amount of work you have to do to accomplish that certification. If we change the rocket engine and we change the fuel it burns and the tank that’s on that first-stage booster, there would be a certification activity associated with that, the details of which will be worked out with the Air Force.
What have you told RD-180 supplier RD-Amross about ULA’s engine transition plans?
Before we made the public announcement about Blue we talked to all of our stakeholders, including them. It takes years to develop an engine and a liquid-oxygen system that fits with it. You need to allow for a graceful transition for your own national interests. That means we’re going to need to continue to buy RD-180s for several years — five, six, seven-plus years. And we will fly them for a couple of years after we’re done buying them.
Have you started negotiating for RD-180 beyond those included in the block buy?
We’ve absolutely been in conversations with them. We were buying them at five a year. We’ve been talking to them about kicking that rate up to eight a year, which they are happy to do. We’re now planning on receiving eight next year. There will be lots of engines after this current buy. They’re happy to provide them.
The Senate has proposed language in its defense bill that ultimately limits the use of Russian engines. What would it mean to ULA if it becomes law?
Unfortunately, the way it was worded, I believe inadvertently, it even prohibits us from offering Deltas because we use the RD-180 for Atlas. It would just be terrible. It would actually be so anticompetitive because it would take your most important provider, ULA, and say, well, you can no longer participate. For a whole class of missions, it immediately becomes a monopoly for the other supplier. The upper-end missions to the highest orbits would be unable to be fulfilled at all. Since I’m prohibited, there isn’t anyone today certified to do those missions. It would just be a disaster.
What’s a reasonable number of launches for ULA to win of the seven or eight the Air Force will put out for bid in the next three years?
We bid this block buy with big savings built in. We bid the average price and we’re working our way through that. We’re coming up right on where that average is, which means we bid a little bit below. That’s given us a lot of confidence. I expect to be very, very competitive.
Do you expect to win at least a couple?
If you don’t win all of them, what do you do with cores you’ve already purchased for those missions as part of the block buy? Are you confident you can find commercial missions for them?
Yes, I am.