The United Launch Alliance may accelerate production of the Delta IV while limiting Atlas V launches, if its Russian provider of engines to the Atlas cuts off supplies, says CEO Michael Gass. (United Launch Alliance)
COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — In a move responding to what he called the “petty litigation” filed by competitor SpaceX, United Launch Alliance (ULA) head Michael Gass revealed the company’s pricing data for its block-buy launch.
“Something I haven’t done, probably ever, is talk about the cost,” Gass said to a group of media Monday evening at the National Space Symposium here. “There’s a lot of rumors and innuendo on what our launches cost.”
The basic average of all ULA launches, according to company figures, is $225 million per launch. That includes both commercial and military launches, added up and divided by total cost. However, the price varies greatly depending on the type of launch, with ULA having two different vehicles in the Delta IV and Atlas V, which come in a variety of configurations.
The lowest-end of the launches in the block buy, the Atlas V 401, costs $164 million per launch. That system is comparable to SpaceX’s Falcon-9 design. Gass added that if any additional launches on the Atlas V 401 are added, the cost to the Air Force is under $100 million.
Officials for SpaceX, including CEO Elon Musk, have alleged that ULA is charging in excess of $400 million per launch. SpaceX officials say that figure was calculated by taking the total cost of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program in the 2015 budget request and dividing it by the three vehicles planned for procurement during that budget year — a figure that would include government support for new entrants like SpaceX itself.
On April 25, Musk announced his company was filing a protest against the Air Force for awarding a block-buy contract for 36 launches to ULA, a sole-source deal that Musk derided as wasteful for taxpayers.
But Gass argues that the block-buy secured two things for the Air Force: lower costs, and guaranteed access to space, building on the run of 100 successful military launches on ULA vehicles.
He also pointed out that despite SpaceX’s confidence that it will shortly be certified for military launch, the company has yet to gain clearance from the Pentagon.
“SpaceX is trying to change the rules for them, even though it may not be in the best interest of the taxpayer,” Gass said of the upstart company’s protest suit. “We’re focused on supporting the mission. It’s time for the other company to match its rhetoric with performance.”
SpaceX’s suit is only one of two major challenges to ULA’s dominance of the military space realm. The other is the threat from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin that his country will cut off sales of the RD-180 engine, used in the Atlas V, for any military missions as a result of US sanctions over the situation in Ukraine. The RD-180 is produced by Russian firm NPO Energomash.
“We all heard the prime minister’s comments. We got feedback from our Energomash partners that they have yet to be contacted by their government,” Gass said. “He was basically saying if the [US increased sanctions] this would be a possibility.”
Gass also highlighted that even if the Russian government blocked sales for Pentagon use, the RD-180 is still used in commercial launches.
However, ULA is laying the groundwork for a backup plan that would accelerate production on the Delta IV, which doesn’t use the RD-180, while limiting the number of Atlas V launches.
That Delta acceleration includes moving up production times for the platforms while also increasing orders for long-lead materials needed. In the meantime, ULA will be more selective with what goes up on the Atlas V.
“There will be certain missions that will stay on Atlas because they’re best configured for Atlas,” Gass said. “The ones that have already been dual-integrated on Delta IV will be the easiest ones to switch.”
ULA has 16 RD-180 engines in stock, with one planned for a launch on Thursday. Procurement occurs in two-year cycles, although five more engines on order should be delivered in the second half of this year. ■