The operators of the U.S. Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets said commercial launch prices, which have been trending upward for the past two years, would need to increase by another 10 percent to 15 percent or so before they would fully re-engage with the commercial market.
Boeing Launch Services President Kenneth A. Heinly and David Markham, president of Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services, said their respective Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets remain available for commercial orders. If they appear to be on the sidelines of the market, they said, it is mainly because commercial prices for years have been at levels that are not profitable for their companies.
Heinly said commercial prices in 2008 came close to what Boeing needs to bid its Delta 4, but only because the U.S. dollar’s value sank compared to the euro and other major currencies.
Markham agreed that for awhile prices were only 5 percent or 10 percent below the profitability threshold for Atlas 5. Since then, he said, the dollar’s recovery has widened the gap to around 15 percent.
Several commercial satellite operators have publicly expressed frustration that the Delta and Atlas vehicles appear to be dedicated to U.S. government missions only. The Delta 2, which is likely to be retired in the coming five years, has logged 89 consecutive successes. The newer and larger Delta 4 has 10 straight successes since 2002.
The Atlas 5 has launched nine times, all successes, since 2002.
Heinly said Boeing would like to sell one or two Delta 4 commercial launches per year and stands ready to do so if prices rise to what Boeing views as an acceptable level.
Markham said Lockheed Martin continues to bid for commercial launch contracts, but that no more than one or two commercial missions per year would be feasible given the Atlas 5’s current government manifest. He said Lockheed Martin hopes to be able to provide the commercial satellite market with “more transparency on when slots become available” so that when government satellites are late a commercial satellite could slip into the Atlas 5 manifest.
But Markham advised commercial satellite owners not to expect Atlas 5 to return to the commercial market in big way given the still-substantial demand, and higher prices, for U.S. government launches.
“We have sized our [Atlas 5 production team] for predictable returns year after year,” Markham said. “Boeing and Lockheed Martin were enticed to compete for the EELV [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program with the U.S. government] for 20 launches per year,” Markham said. “That represents the total global commercial market today.”