Viasat, ULA insist ViaSat-3 launch was competitively procured

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This article originally appeared in the Sept. 24, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

United Launch Alliance and satellite operator Viasat are defending the “competed” status of a launch contract that other launch companies say they had no part in.

Fleet operator Viasat announced a contract Sept. 10 at the beginning of the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris to launch a ViaSat-3 broadband satellite on an Atlas 5 between 2020 and 2022, and told SpaceNews the company chose ULA over contenders SpaceX and Arianespace. Executives from SpaceX and Arianespace expressed surprise at this during a Sept. 11 panel of launch operators, saying they were not involved in a bid for the mission.

“I wasn’t bidding against [ULA CEO] Tory [Bruno] on that launch,” SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said.

Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël said that even though his company is “very close to Viasat,” it was not a contender for the ViaSat-3 mission that went to ULA. “There was no competition there for Arianespace,” he said.

Bruno, during the panel, insisted Viasat did not sole source the award to ULA. “It was a competition,” he said.

He attributed the commercial Atlas 5 win to the rocket’s schedule availability, its 78 consecutive successes and the ability to fly a custom trajectory for the mission that will shave orbit-raising time when the all-electric satellite is dropped off in geostationary transfer orbit.

“They tell us price was a big factor and we were far more competitive on price than we perhaps even thought ourselves,” Bruno said.

Dave Ryan, Viasat’s president of space systems, told SpaceNews in a subsequent interview that the ViaSat-3 contract ULA won was competed amongst the potential launch providers, though Viasat’s atypical procurement process may have caused confusion.

“A lot of times they may look at our discussions and may not readily think about the fact that they are in a competition, but in reality, of course they all are,” he said.

Viasat used the same procurement style with ViaSat-1, which launched in 2011 on an International Launch Services Proton, and ViaSat-2, which launched last year on an Ariane 5, he said. Ryan joined Viasat in 2016 after those launch arrangements were made, but asserted that nothing had changed.

“We are not doing anything differently from what we’ve done in the past. It’s just not the traditional government type of process we go through,” he said, referring a formal request for proposals.

“We go through our requirements, we go through our needs, we go through our desires and we see where it leads from there,” he said.

For ULA, the deal is its first since taking over commercial Atlas 5 sales from Lockheed Martin in January.

ULA has performed eight to 14 launches per year since 2013, but only launched four commercial satellites during that time. Now, facing greater competition from SpaceX and possibly others for U.S. government launches, ULA is ready to diversify.

Bruno said the company wants to improve its commercial average from one satellite launch every other year to one to two such missions annually.

“You will see a lot more of us,” Bruno said during an interview at World Satellite Business Week, an annual conference dominated by commercial satellite operators not traditionally interested in ULA services. “We will be present in the community and will be working actively with customers to find solutions for their businesses.”

Ryan said Viasat intends to award another launch contract in the coming months but that launch providers shouldn’t expect a formal solicitation.

“We will be making future announcements probably before the end of the year on other providers for launch services,” he said.

Viasat is preparing a global broadband systems comprising three geostationary satellites. Arianespace and ULA both have launch contracts, though Viasat has not said which launch provider will go first. Viasat has yet to sign a launch contract for the third satellite.

In Viasat’s statement, the company said it remains in discussion with Arianespace and SpaceX for that mission.