United Launch Alliance (ULA) is a 50-50 joint venture owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing to provide a cost-efficient service primarily to the US Government.
I was hosted at ULA Denver HQ by Dr Georges Sowers, Chief Scientist & Vice President for Advanced Programs at ULA. Dr Sowers explained that government launches account for 90% of ULA business, while 10% are commercial. The launcher landscape in the US has changed in recent years. Lockheed Martin and Boeing used to have the monopoly for the provision of government launcher services in the framework of a very specific regulatory regime that did not allow these companies freedom to operate commercially. Space X challenged this legal monopoly, and as a result government procurement practices have changed. The US access to space policy has traditionally been based on the existence of two independent launcher systems and US government was financially supporting ULA to maintain both systems. With the arrival of Space X, US government and agencies put Space X and ULA in competition. Apart from the financial consequences of this change of approach, ULA no longer has the need to maintain its two systems, Atlas and Delta, and is now moving towards a single System, the Vulkan. It is also looking into ways to become more streamlined and have greater presence in the commercial market, both domestic and international – the objective being that one third of its activities be commercial sales. Dr Sowers points out that the company has changed dramatically in the last two years. ULA has, inter alia, undertaken a profound restructuring, which included a drastic reduction in staff numbers. He explains that one of the reasons for ULA not having developed more commercial business was that the government dictated commercial price policy, ULA being obliged to reimburse government part of the gains it made.
Dr Sowers pointed out that ensuring a level playing field for launchers is hard to achieve. There is far more supply than demand in the launcher business and there are no prospects that demand will grow significantly in coming years. This means that all launchers need to be subsidised to a greater or lesser extent. He further argue that,
Dr Sowers was accompanied by Michael Holguin, Program Manager, Bernard Kutter, Advance Programs Manager, and Eric Monda, Analytical Engineer. Regarding the increase in demand for small satellite launches, Mr Holguin explained that ULA has a well-developed rideshare program allowing multiple possibilities for auxiliary and secondary payloads. He mentioned in particular the possibilities offered by EPSA, which is an adapter placed between the second stage and the primary payload capable of accommodating up to six secondary payloads on both Atlas V and Delta IV launchers.
Dr Sowers explained ULA’s concept for Cislunar economy (http://www.ulalaunch.com/uploads/docs/Published_Papers/Commercial_Space/2016_Cislunar.pdf). This concept is based on the assumption that commercial space is only possible if there is a true space economy and that a space economy has to start in Cislunar space, because of its proximity to consumers. The full presentation can be found here. The core of this concept is that the development of a space economy is dependent on cheaper access to space and key to this would be reusable transportation and the in-space availability of LO2 and LH2 propellant obtained from water mined in asteroids and in the moon. ULA has worked out the cost that would be economically advantageous to pay for propellant made available in L1 or in LLO and is approaching companies that could undertake mining water in asteroids or in the Moon with its proposition. This will be an interesting space to watch!