ULA to focus more attention on commercial launch market

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WASHINGTON — United Launch Alliance plans to increase its activities in the commercial launch market using both the current Atlas and future Vulcan rockets, while acknowledging that the U.S. government will remain its major customer for the foreseeable future.

Speaking on a panel at the Satellite 2018 conference here March 12, ULA president and chief executive Tory Bruno said it was devoting more attention to the commercial market because the company no longer had to help the U.S. government solve a “crisis” of national security space launches.

“We’ve done our duty. Our job for the first decade was to help the United States avoid a serious crisis in space,” by launching primarily national security payloads. “The assets were aging out. The replacements were late. We were asked to be able to fly with perfect reliability because you couldn’t afford to lose any.”

“That crisis is over. We helped solve it,” he said. “So now we are able to shift our attention to the commercial marketplace, and we’re pretty excited to be able to do that.”

As part of that shifting attention, ULA announced in January it was taking over commercial marketing of the Atlas 5. Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services had previously handled sales of the Atlas to commercial customers.

Bruno, speaking at a media roundtable during the conference March 13, said moving commercial sales in-house makes it easier to customize solutions for customers, citing the large number of Atlas vehicle options based on payload fairing size and number of solid rocket boosters.

“We are different from other providers in that we have so many different rocket configurations someone could purchase,” he said. “To customize the perfect solution for a customer, our engineers sit in a room with their engineers for a couple of weeks and go through all these iterations. That’s very hard to do when we’re working through a third party.”

That direct sales approach, he said, should allow ULA to lower prices for its customers as well. “We should be able to offer them a better deal,” he said. “We’re not trying to do this to make higher profits. We’re trying to do this to be more competitive by offering them a better solution.”

ULA will also handle marketing of the Vulcan rocket in-house. The first launch of that rocket is planned for mid-2020, but Bruno said the company has not yet sold a Vulcan mission.

“I have a number of customers that we are in discussions with, who are very interested in Vulcan. I have not signed any contracts,” he said.

Bruno also said that there are no plans to perform a test flight of Vulcan, instead using it for commercial missions initially until the vehicle is certified for U.S. government payloads. “I intend for those first two flights to carry paying customers,” he said.

That’s a different approach from SpaceX, whose inaugural Falcon Heavy flight carried a demonstration payload in the form of a Tesla Roadster sports car, launched into a heliocentric orbit.

“I will not fly a car,” Bruno said. “I guess if a customer wanted to pay me to fly a car, I’d consider it. I will not fly my car. I like my car.”

Bruno said he expects about 20 to 30 percent of ULA’s launches in the future will be commercial. “The majority of our core [business] will still be national security space, and NASA science missions,” he said.

BE-4 test
A still from a video released by Blue Origin March 13 showing a recent 114-second BE-4 engine test. Credit: Blue Origin

Picking an engine

The current attention focused on Vulcan has less to do with its initial commercial customers than what engine ULA will select to power the rocket’s first stage. Bruno has said in the past that the BE-4 engine from Blue Origin was ULA’s leading choice versus Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1, but ULA has not announced its decision.

Asked during the conference panel discussion when that decision would come, Bruno offered a succinct, if non-specific, response: “We’re going to make a decision soon.”

Bruno also declined to offer a specific schedule for making the decision at the media roundtable, but did discuss the criteria the company is using. Those factors include how well the engine works, its performance, availability of funding to complete development, schedule and recurring costs.

“There are detailed criteria that we have been scoring each one against,” he said. “We’ve been taking advice from independent review teams, making sure we’ve got that structured right. It is the scoring against that that allows us to make an engine decision, which will happen soon.”

Bruno said that BE-4 is ahead of AR1 in its development, as work on the BE-4 started earlier. While hotfire tests of the full AR1 have yet to start, Blue Origin started tests of its BE-4 engine last October.

“We’re continuing to fire our BE-4 engine, which is making great progress,” Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, said on the conference panel. “We’re really making great strides on the engine development.”

That included, he said, a recent 114-second test of the engine at 65 percent of full power. Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos tweeted a video of that test March 13, which he described as a “mixture radio sweep” of the engine’s methane and liquid oxygen propellants. “Methane (or LNG) has proved to be an outstanding fuel choice,” he wrote.

The selection of BE-4 would also help ULA keep development of Vulcan on schedule for the U.S. Air Force’s Launch Service Agreement program for national security missions. Bruno said the company’s schedule calls for two commercial launches in 2020, after which the vehicle would be certified for national security missions by early 2021.

That schedule, Bruno said, is consistent with selecting the BE-4. “If we were to select Aerojet Rocketdyne, then that puts much more pressure on that,” he said. Current schedule margin of up to a year and a half “would pretty much be consumed if we were to select AR1.”

Bruno said he expects Vulcan to operate alongside the Atlas 5 for two to three years as Vulcan operations ramp up. “In the early ’20s, we’ll fly the last Atlas,” he said. The Delta 4 Heavy, he said, would likely be phased out in the early to mid 2020s.

With Vulcan alone, ULA will be able to handle up to 20 launches a year. “That’s more than enough” to meet anticipated demand over the next decade, he said.

By comparison, SpaceX launched 18 Falcon 9 rockets in 2017. The company expects to perform up to 30 Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches in 2018 and has done five to date, with five more planned by the end of April.