As Reusable Rockets Advance, Can ULA Still Compete?

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Cover Image: Atlas V MUOS at night prior to launch. Credit: ULA

Reusable Rockets are not a Priority nor are they Planned

There's a monster lurking in the shadows...

Blue Origin ushers in the age of reusable rockets

New Shehard sticks the landing. Credit: Blue Origin

With all the excitement about SpaceX's attempts at landing reusable rockets and with last week's successful landing of Blue Origin's 'New Shepard' core stage -- the first successful powered landing of rocket core all the way from space (suborbital space, sure, but still technically space), it seems that a new age in space flight is finally happening.

The age of reusable rockets.

Reusability has long been a dream of rocket designers and space enthusiasts. The Space Shuttle was arguably the most famous attempt - but, as cool as that spacecraft was, it was only partially reusable.

And incredibly expensive to operate and maintain.

There have been other attempts to reach what many consider the 'holy grail' of spaceflight. In fact, the search for reusable rockets precedes Blue Origin's and SpaceX's efforts by several decades. Programs like:

  • Vertical take off and landing systems like the single stage to orbit DCX or the two-stage-to-orbit Kistler.
  • Horizontal take off and landing systems like Virgin Galactic's White Knight and Spaceship 2, Xcor's Lynx, or REL's Skylon

have all been, or are still, being considered, but none have yet succeeded.

The underlying problem has not been a lack of capability -- it's been a lack of affordability.​

SpaceX and Blue Origin are looking to change that, but what about the Big Boys on the block? What's the United Launch Alliance doing to advance reusable rockets?

THE ULA

The United Launch Alliance is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense, Space and Security that was formed back in December of 2006. The intent was to combine the expertise in space launch teams at these two companies and provide launch services to the U.S. government - ostensibly at higher efficiencies and lower costs than before.

ULA's Delta Launch Family

ULA's Delta Launch Family

And today, ​ULA provides launch services using three expendable launch systems:

  • ​Delta II
  • Delta IV, and
  • Atlas V

These launch systems have been around for a long time. In fact, the Atlas and Delta launch families have been used for more than 50 years!

And not one of them uses reusable rockets.​

It's arguably why ULA is one of the most expensive ways to get to orbit. In fact, ULA charges more than anyone in the world for a space launch.

But it doesn’t matter what they charge. ULA doesn’t have to compete with the rest of the world’s launch market—because ULA gets a constant flow of automatic business from the US military.

Here’s how it works:

  1. The US military needs to launch a lot of things into space, so there’s plenty of business
  2. Because military equipment is tied to national security, the US wants the launches done by an American company
  3. ULA works with the government on a “cost plus basis,” meaning their payment for a launch is a percentage of whatever the launch costs  -- in other words, the more expensive they make it, the more they get paid
  4. There's plenty of money in the U.S. military budget to go around, and 
  5. Many of the decision-makers in the US Department of Defense are friends with the leadership of ULA, 

​This last point may be the most infuriating of all. Why? Because there is a fairly common practice for retiring DoD officials -- friends of ULA executives and board members -- to find a place to work at ULA when they leave government.

It just screams "cronyism".​

And it means ULA is more likely to get a pass from the DoD rather than tough questions as to how they spend government money.

What that all adds up to is, at best, a flawed system that puts zero pressure on lowering costs and at worst, a grand-scale government scandal—all paid for by the US taxpayer.

And absolutely no incentive for ULA to lower launch costs.​

Why would it?  ULA seems to be quite content focusing on maintaining their position with the DoD and NASA​ than developing new, sustainable technologies like reusable rockets.

Sure, they are the primary for the Space Launch System (Boeing ) and the Orion capsule (Lockheed), but these systems are, quite frankly, just minor advancements on 1960's technology. There is no reusability.

None... Zip... Nada​

Not even the solid rocket boosters or the main core's rocket engines (see ​"How the new SLS engine contract is a step in the wrong direction")

Instead, ULA seems to be more concerned with limiting the access of upstarts like SpaceX to DoD contracts.​

You see, in order to be awarded a military launch contract, a company needs special certification -- which can only be granted by the DoD and NASA.

Curiously, SpaceX has had a very hard time becoming certified.

SpaceX complaint to congress

Click to read the full complaint

Elon Musk challenged that. Knowing that U.S. law requires fair competition for the military’s launching needs, Musk brought the issue to Congress in 2014, making the case that “SpaceX is not seeking to be awarded contracts for these launches. We are simply seeking the right to compete.  (You can read the complaint here.)

Of course, he received a lot of pushback.

Despite clear evidence that ULA charges six times SpaceX’s rate per pound of payload, politicians like Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama (one of whose biggest donors is the aerospace industry) argued that it was a national security issue to continue to use ULA exclusively.

It's an odd argument. ULA purchases all their engines from Russia (and continues to do so, with Shelby's help and despite economic sanctions).

SEE: Russian rocket dilemma: No space access without Moscow?

SpaceX, on the other hand, does all of their business in the U.S. 

In an interview a while back, Musk vented about the situation:​

ULA has decided that they’re afraid even of an unfair competition. They don’t want a fair competition. They don’t even want an unfair competition. They want no competition at all…they’re afraid that we’ll take some of the huge gravy train they have exclusive access to, or that it’s not going to be as big.

But change may be coming...

Innovate or Die

Despite Shelby's support, ULA has been unable to procure enough RD-180/181 engines from Russia and was recently dropped from bidding on a multi-billlion dollar cargo resupply contract to the ISS.

Dragon V2 capsule landing shows reusable rockets are coming

Dragon V2 capsule landing. Credit SpaceX

Which means the competition with SpaceX, and other upstarts like Blue Origin, is heating up.​

Does that mean ULA will start developing their own rocket engines and reusable rockets?

No plans have been announced.

ULA appears firmly committed to continuing launch services like always. And, as history has shown, the innovators eventually come out ahead.

Sometimes much faster than expected...

What do you think? Will reusable rockets change the future of space launch services?​ Is ULA becoming obsolete? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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