US should back Spacex and Blue Origin and not ULA

Boeing and Lockheed are the backers of ULA. They have not built a complete new rocket for over a decade. They have used the Russian engine for the Atlas V. They have not launched the Space Launch System in spite of getting over $12 billion since 2001. They will not launch the first Space Launch System until late 2019 or more likely 2021. ULA is contracting out to Aerojet and Blue Origin to make a replacement engine for the Atlas V.

ULA gets about $832 million per year to be the “reliable” heavy launch provider for the USA. ULA still gets this money in 2018, supposedly to guarantee launch capabilities for the USA.

The US government should give the nearly $1 billion per year to Spacex and Blue Origin in order to have two reliable rocket companies. They should also kill the $2-4 billion per year Space Launch System project. Boeing can then stick to making commercial jets and Lockheed will continue to ripoff the US taxpayer with the ridiculously overpriced F35 stealth fighter.

Blue Origin is not yet a successful rocket company. They have a reusable suborbital system and have successfully test fired a new large rocket engine. The US wants more than one supplier for heavy rockets, so beyond Spacex, Blue Origin seems like the best bet.

United Launch Alliance has a problem and the problem is that rocket science is hard. They are struggling to get non-Russian engines working by 2019 or 2020 for about $100-150 million per launch without factoring in launch pad maintenance costs.

* SpaceX aims to fly each Block 5 first stage ten times with only inspections in between, and up to 100 times with refurbishment. This could reduce launch costs by 2 to 4 times
* Spacex will try to launch the Falcon Heavy for the first time in Dec 2017. It could take 2-3 launches for the Spacex Heavy to get reliable
* Spacex is building the BFR rocket able to launch 150 tons and is fully reusable. Spacex has a target for launch costs of about $7 million per launch

Even with only some reusability and just the Falcon 9, Spacex is half the launch cost of United Launch Alliance when ULA is using the Atlas and the Russia engines.

With the more reusable Block 5 Falcon 9, Spacex becomes four times cheaper than United Launch Alliance and the Atlas V. Without the Atlas V, Spacex is about 5-8 times cheaper than the Delta rockets.

The Falcon Heavy will mean that Spacex can launch two to three times more than United Launch Alliance for each launch.

Blue Origin is developing the Vulcan engine. It is slated to enter service in 2020, likely using a new rocket engine known as the BE-4 under development at Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. To bridge the gap between now and 2020 ULA needs to continue launching its Atlas V rocket, and the Atlas V needs the RD-180 to power it.

In 2014, ULA detailed their launch costs.

ULA’s launches cost an average of $225 million;

The Delta 4 Heavy, its most powerful rocket, runs about $350 million a launch;

The lower end of the Delta costs $164 million;

Any launch of the Atlas V (version 401) over the current buy would cost less than $100 million (this is the rocket closest to Musk’s Falcon 9).

Delta runs $164 million as part of the regular contract. The lower costs result from the fact that the launch maintenance costs — preparing and maintaining the launch pad and the equipment that goes with it — are paid for on annual basis by ULA. So the $64 million is already paid for, ULA representatives explained, and the per-launch price comes down below $100 million.

Since 2016 ULA has provided pricing for the Atlas V through its RocketBuilder website, advertising a base price for each rocket configuration which ranges from $109 million for the 401 up to $153 million for the 551. Each additional SRB adds an average of $6.8 million to the cost of the rocket. On top of the base price, commercial customers can also choose to purchase larger payload fairings or additional launch service options. NASA and Air Force launch costs are often higher than equivalent commercial missions, due to additional government accounting, analysis, and processing requirements. These government requirements can add $30-$80 million to the cost of a launch.

The U.S. Air Force awarded a $115 million contract to Aerojet Rocketdyne for development of the AR1 engine to be completed in 2019. Contract options could increase government funding up to $501 million. Aerojet had received US$228 million in funding for AR-1 through June 2017. In April 2017, Aerojet announced that the engine would be built in a new factory planned to be built in Huntsville, Alabama.

22 thoughts on “US should back Spacex and Blue Origin and not ULA”

  1. I think ULA’s success had more to do with campaign finance than anything. Same problem with the SLS. When you have parts made in 32 congressional districts it becomes (by design) almost impossible to kill. If we could get the politics out of it, then we will see some real savings and accomplishments once the engineers are calling the shots. Until then, good luck changing anything or saving money.

  2. Sorry Brian, but your story is full of holes and is basically bullshit. Just come out and say you are a blind cheerleader for the new darlings, led by the billionaires and be done with it. ULA used the Russian RD-180 engine because it was cost effective, and because in part, the George H. Bush administration wanted to throw the Russians a bone after the collapse of the Soviet Union, obstensibly (but wrongly) to limit their spreading advanced missile technology to 3rd world nations.

    ULA’s EELVs of the late 1980s and 1990s were designed for ONE thing: To assure the USAF and DoD of rides to earth orbit for our spy satellites. Cost was never in the equation. Reliability was. With one-off spy satellites being years in the making and costing upwards of $1 Billion or more, launch costs in the $100 to $200 million were relatively chump change. Over the long history of the EELV Atlas and Delta families there have been hardly ANY launch failures. That can’t be said for SpaceX, and Blue Origin hasn’t even lofted a single satellite to orbit yet. They’ve only done some quick up and down stunts hoping to get rich people to pay big bucks for a joy ride above the von Karman line. Anything beyond the New Shepard is vaporware at this point. None of their natural gas/LOX engines have flown and they are still in testing.

    Don’t get me wrong. I wish SpaceX and Blue Origin good luck in their endeavors, but comparing them to ULA is like comparing apples to oranges, with those oranges just being recently planted and no one knowing how they are going taste.

    ULA did some advanced work on the LH2/LOX J2-X engine, eventually making it nearly a clean sheet design using 3-D printed parts and lowering the part count significantly. That engine could have been used in the SLS for high energy upper stages, but NASA chose the path of lower risk and lower performance in selecting the Centaur’s RL-10 engines instead. That wasn’t ULA’s doing.

    Going forward it remains to be seen what exactly the market will be for space launch beyond launching communications satellites to geosynchronous orbit or constellations in lower orbits. But new technologies being developed such as space tugs to either refuel or latch onto those satellites to significantly extend their useful lives may well put a damper on the number of space launches needed in the future.

    There is nothing amiss with the U.S. wanting to maintain more than just a couple launch providers. We learned the hard way with the tragic loss of our shuttles that putting all our eggs in one basket is penny-wise and pound foolish.

    And one advantage (and yes sometimes a disadvantage in using money to push the envelope) ULA has over those other companies is that they are beholden to shareholders, and not at the whims of just one man with deep pockets who might decide to pull the plug at any time leaving us holding the bag.

    • ” Don’t get me wrong. I wish SpaceX and Blue Origin good luck in their endeavors, but comparing them to ULA is like comparing apples to oranges, with those oranges just being recently planted and no one knowing how they are going taste. ”

      We do know what it tastes like. Within 10 years the cost of orbiting a pound is below $100, and weekly launches are available on a system with 48 hour or less turnaround for surge capability.

      Ah well, none so blind as the idiots who put the whole tube of Superglue(tm) into their eyes.

        • True BO hasn’t put anything in to orbit. That’s the only reason why Atlas V should still be around.

          Once BO is up and running (IMHO they are better funded than ULA) then it will be time for three rockets to enter the octagon and for only two to leave.

    • Not taking sides here, but as a NewSpace fan I thought you had an interesting point and so put this as a question in an existing thread about the above article here:

      You said: one advantage ULA has over [Blue and SpaceX] is that they are beholden to shareholders, and not at the whims of just one man with deep pockets who might decide to pull the plug at any time leaving us holding the bag.

      My comment about it: That question could concern the employees of either company or simply fans who spend hours struggling to understand the engineering and economics of the NewSpace paradigm, whilst having no power to counter a sudden change of heart by a company leader. Is there any kind of safety net for the case where either (or both) boss simply decides to drop out or ruin his own launch assets ?

      I would add that public companies also get me worried since, despite all precautions, they too can fall into the wrong hands.

    • You say not beholden to shareholders like it’s a bad thing. Being beholden to shareholders is EXACTLY why ULA finds itself in its current predicament– Not being able to compete because its shareholders are milking it for profit rather than reinvesting that money for upcoming technologies like reusable boosters. Meanwhile the company not beholden to investors is eating ULA’s lunch in the commercial launch market (SpaceX). With another one coming that is sure to even further decimate ULA’s presence in the market (Blue Origin).

      It is ULA that had the taxpayer holding the bag when it charges $150 million or more per launch and had a $1-billion-per-year ELC contract to do nothing because nobody else was allowed to launch national security payloads.

      I’m not worried about Musk “leaving the taxpayer holding the bag.” If for whatever reason he decides to exploit the market for exorbitant gains, you can be sure other countries (like China) with the resources to develop new capabilities will be competing against him, or other rivals like Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin).

  3. Down with pork! Put Lockheed on a vegan diet!

    I hate pork, unless it is pork that funds development of next generation prototype fission reactors. In that case I love pork.

  4. ULA should be allowed a chance to compete in the marketplace on their own merits, and to do so by allowing them freedom of choice on where to source their vital components, including engines. The US doesn’t benefit from restricting or distorting markets through anti-competitive embargos. The US should repose trust in free markets and not in individual personalities or savior cults.

    • No, not if that means US taxpayer money is going in to Putin’s pocket.

      We can and should decide not to buy from that terrorist, expansionist, totalitarian thug.

      • If you don’t want to buy items from Russia, that’s your own choice – but don’t seek to usurp the freedom of choice of others just to suit your own political agenda. I don’t see you providing the market with any launch solutions in lieu of ULA, so stop trying to hold everybody else back.

        • You’d have a point if I weren’t a US net taxpayer, and we weren’t talking about what I vote for and prefer my money not go towards

          If you and ULA thinkt here’s a commercial market for RD-180 Atlases. you go for it. Note however, they are not.

    • I agree with you Sanman. ULA should be allowed to provide the most competitive product their organization can offer and then bare the full impact of public opinion for doing so.

  5. Please give Spacex the money and use the savings to give the American public the universal health care it deserves like it’s progressive European counterparts!!

    • Hmmm.

      Commenter proposes an economic impossibility on the scale of a camel getting through a needles eye in a fit state to be ridden.

      I’ll do it him the courtesy of presuming he meant sarcasm.

    • Hey, Frank Verdin. I think I got into a spacex troll fight with you a year or two ago about how profitable space x could become.

      Good to see you still making empty and vague claims against well thought out arguments and intelligently made arguments(despite some minor factual errors/ overlooked aspects).

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