WASHINGTON – An interactive website unveiled by United Launch Alliance Nov. 30 both offers potential customers the ability to get price estimates for launches as well as serves as the latest sign of the ten-year-old company’s self-described transformation in a more competitive launch market.

The RocketBuilder website is designed to let users select variables about their launch, including their desired orbit, payload mass, fairing size and desired launch date. The site then calculates the estimated price of the Atlas 5 rocket for that mission.

“It will be easier to buy a ride in space than to get a plane ticket home for the holidays,” said Tory Bruno, ULA chief executive. “All of that guesswork and all of that murkiness that an operator has to go through to figure out launch services, how that balances against the choices they make on their spacecraft, that is a thing of the past.”

In addition to calculating the price for the launch, the site also estimates the “added value” that ULA argues an Atlas 5 launch provides. That value comes in the form of insurance savings because of the vehicle’s high reliability, elimination of costs from launch delays and increased revenue the satellite can generate from an extended lifetime enabled by the Atlas’ accuracy in placing the satellite in the desired orbit. ULA argues that added value is significant: the site estimates its default value at $65 million, reducing the net cost of a baseline Atlas 5 launch from $109 million to $44 million.

Bruno said ULA has included that added value information to provide an “unprecedented level of transparency” for customers. “When you buy a car you look at the sticker price, but you have to ask other questions to really understand the true cost of ownership,” he said.

That emphasis, and quantification, of added value is intended to play up the company’s strengths, Bruno said. “Our competitive advantage is inherently built in to our reliability and our schedule certainty,” he said. “What we’re doing here is making them visible to customers so that they can make an informed choice.”

At the same time, Bruno acknowledged that ULA has worked to lower the cost of the launch service itself in order to remain competitive in the launch market. He said that “just a handful” of years ago an Atlas 5 401 sold for $184 million, versus $109 million ULA is now charging. “That is a result of the entire company’s transformation that we’ve been going through,” he said, citing efforts to reduce vehicle costs and streamline operations.

Following any submission on the website, experts from ULA will contact the company to answer any questions and work through the specifics of the launch, Bruno said. He added that the tool was also designed for education, with teachers able to take their students through the steps of preparing for a launch and downloading a technical readout of their hypothetical payload.

The tool is intended for commercial missions only, and does not include ULA’s Delta 4 vehicle, which is currently offered only to government customers. Bruno said the company will add information for its planned next-generation Vulcan launch vehicle by late next year.

The prices the website calculates are not intended for government missions, which Bruno estimates cost between $30 and $80 million more because of additional mission assurance services. ULA is looking at potentially creating a similar website for government and military customers as well that would factor in those costs.

“We haven’t decide whether we integrate it here or whether it will be a separate website,” Bruno said. “So we’re working with our customers to understand how we would package the things they would buy, because every government customer doesn’t buy the exact same sorts of things as do other government customers. We have to go through that same sort of analysis and understanding.”

The current site, though, could still be useful for government customers as a “trade study tool” to make basic choices about launch requirements. “This is tremendously empowering for our government customers, because they are able, just like a commercial customer, to do rapid trades and understand the implications of their decisions and their choices,” he said.

Phillip Swarts is the military space reporter for SpaceNews. He previously covered space and advanced technology for Air Force Times, the Justice Department for The Washington Times, and investigative journalism for the Washington Guardian;...