COLORADO SPRINGS – Amazon’s record-breaking deal to purchase up to 83 launches from Arianespace, Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance is “a big deal” in the context of recent geopolitical developments, ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno said April 5. These contracts are not just significant for the companies themselves, he said, but also a boon to the West’s industrial competitiveness following Russia’s abrupt exit from the global launch market.
Arianespace, Blue Origin and ULA won contracts worth several billion dollars to deploy most of Amazon’s 3,236-satellite Project Kuiper broadband megaconstellation.
During a roundtable with reporters at the 37th Space Symposium, Bruno highlighted the significance of winning this contract for ULA and for the future of its next-generation Vulcan rocket, projected to fly for the first time later this year. These new orders will allow the company to expand Vulcan production and increase investments in infrastructure. Beyond that, this is “good for the country on multiple levels,” he said.
The business that Amazon’s launch contracts will generate in the United States and Europe will ensure that the West is never again dependent on Russia for launch services, Bruno said.
Bruno is well acquainted with Russian dependence. ULA’s workhorse Atlas 5 has always relied on Russian-built RD-180s engines. All the engines for Atlas 5’s remaining missions have already been brought over and are stored in the United States.
“Russia is not coming back into the commercial launch marketplace, this is it,” he said.
ULA was not in a position to help OneWeb after the company severed ties with its original launch provider, Russia’s space corporation Roscosmos, and had to stop deploying its broadband constellation on Russia’s Soyuz rocket. ULA’s remaining two dozen Atlas 5 missions are booked, including nine Amazon ordered last August for Project Kuiper.
While OneWeb secured a deal with SpaceX last month to resume launches this year, Bruno did not rule out ULA supporting OneWeb launches beyond 2024 if there is still a need and Amazon’s commitments are met, Bruno said. “We want to help. We want to do anything we can to help the West get through this situation in Ukraine,” he said. “We are still looking at what we can do for them. Soyuz is gone, and they’re going to be gone for the foreseeable future.”
Arianespace, the Evry, France-based launch provider that booked 19 Soyuz launches for OneWeb, including the remaining six needed to complete its constellation, is in a similar position as ULA. Its remaining Ariane 5 missions are booked as it looks to begin the transition to Ariane 6 this year.
Bruno also suggested that production and infrastructure investments propelled by Amazon’s large order would benefit the U.S. government, a cornerstone ULA customer that has invested more than $1 billion in Vulcan and its Blue Origin-supplied BE-4 engines. And it would ensure that in the event of another crisis, that there’s enough launch capacity so the OneWeb story doesn’t repeat itself.
Asked about any potential risks for ULA from the Amazon deal, Bruno said the only issue would be the infrastructure investment. “We looked pretty carefully at how much of that infrastructure would be available for other customers, would be wanted or needed,” he said.
Bruno said he is confident about Amazon’s business plan for its low Earth orbit constellation because of how it ties into Amazon’s cloud business and broad base of internet services. “It seemed to us that if anyone will succeed, any LEO megaconstellation, that these guys will. They certainly have more stamina, more resources, more robustness than anyone else does.”
All that said, “if against all odds Kuiper doesn’t make it, what will I do with all this infrastructure? Well, no one anticipated that Russia would invade Ukraine,” he said. “And as I look at the entire geopolitical scene, our relationship with Russia and where they’re going in space, and China’s extraordinarily aggressive posture with anti-satellite weapons, it seems to me that this country is going to need a much higher industrial capacity as we move forward over the next decade.”
The U.S. military, further, “will need a high launch tempo certainly in time of conflict as they might have to replace assets on orbit. They’re going to need to launch more assets” so it could take advantage of the additional capacity generated by Amazon’s contracts.
“So if Amazon goes away, the near term will be overcapacity, but in just a few years, the government would catch up to that and I would be able to use that capacity for them,” said Bruno. “That’s not as efficient as if I had Amazon, but it would certainly not go to waste.”