WASHINGTON — In his first five years on the job, Tory Bruno led United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, through a protracted fight over the use of a Russian rocket engine.
Now, Bruno wants to ensure ULA is situated to win national security space launch contracts for the next decade. ULA is building a new rocket, known as Vulcan, that will replace the Atlas V and is expected to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 to launch U.S. Air Force and intelligence satellites. The Vulcan has a new engine, the BE-4, built by Blue Origin, and Bruno says it is built specifically for the national security market.
ULA has few blemishes on its launch record, but Air Force officials are concerned about limiting the cost of launches, which can range from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars. To remain a viable option, Bruno knows he must deliver on both counts, and he expects Vulcan to do so.
Bruno spoke with Defense News at the Satellite 2019 show.
A big request for proposals came out earlier this month. How are you thinking about it?
First thing is it’s a big deal. This is the most important procurement since, I don’t know when. It determines the next decade of U.S. access to space. This is maybe the final move in a really long multiyear procurement activity. Back in 2016, the government started procurement to replace the RD-180 and our dependence on Russian access to space.
In 2018 the Air Force had a competition that provided a big co-investment for the whole vehicle, and they made three awards. There were four bidders. ULA won a contract, Northrop Grumman won a contract and Blue [Origin] won a contract, and SpaceX did not.
Then this year they start the procurement for the actual missions, and that is called phase two, or LSP, Launch Service Procurement. That’s the RFP you’re talking about. So that RFP will select two providers in order to provide a big block of missions that then provide our national security space access for the balance of the 2020s.
Anybody can bid for this. They will pick two, and only two, and if they don’t pick someone who got one of the three [prior] awards, that company will have its contract at that time terminated for the development. That award will be made at the end of the year. It wouldn’t surprise me if it moved to the very beginning of ’20, but I believe it’s scheduled for the end of 2019.
The proposal term itself is 90 days, so the government is going to take quite a bit of time to carefully consider the proposals.
The thinking is there is not a glut of national security satellites to launch in the next decade.
The entire market is kind of flat. When we look at national security space, you can see it’s dipping down a little bit. All the spacecraft go up at once in a short span of time, [then] they all age out at once.
So when they’re all up, the launch rate is down, and then they all age out and the launch rate goes up. We’re in that flat spot now for the next many years.
Unfortunately, the commercial market is also flat and down. We’re looking at a forecast of 20-25 per year worldwide addressable. For the U.S., we all need about 10 missions a year to be healthy companies.
Assured access to space now requires two companies, so that’s fortunate and perfect.
Now the block of missions: It’s not actually a block of pre-identified counted missions. It’s all the missions that occur for national security space through the Air Force through a period of time. Then they will be flown by those two providers.
Can you give me an update on Vulcan and where you are with development?
We’re doing great. We’re sort of in the final part of development now. We are just finishing up building qualification hardware and have started the actual flight hardware in our factory. The factory has been retooled. We brought in the latest manufacturing technology. We re-laid out the factory, and it’s being used in its new configuration.
This is in Alabama?
Yeah. I won’t say the number, but many millions of dollars investment in factories [is happening], so it’s going to be faster and better quality.
We are reconfiguring [Space Launch Complex] 41 out in Canaveral, Florida, because we’re going to have an overlap between Atlas and Vulcan. As far as we know this is the first time anybody’s ever had like a dual-purpose pad.
We have redone our pad and our vertical integration facility and our mobile launch platform.
We are modifying the pad to fly either Atlas or Vulcan. So you can fly an Atlas and come back a couple weeks later and fly a Vulcan. We’re doing the same with the building because the platforms are in different places.
All of that is happening right now because we are going to be ready to fly at the beginning of 2021.
The long pull for us is Blue Origins’ BE-4 engine.
You down-selected last year.
They started development on this engine probably in 2012, but they’re now coming to the final part of that. They’ll be delivering an engine to me early next year.
What happens with this RFP if you guys aren’t part of it?
If we lose? Well, that’s not going to happen. I seriously am very confident that we’re going to be participating in that. Obviously if we’re not selected, I have to go back and redo my whole business case.
Are there components to Vulcan that are especially equipped to do well in this competition?
We made a choice early on when we were designing Vulcan’s architecture. A rocket is always perfect for one mission, and then every other mission it can do, but it’s less than perfect, if you will.
It’s always a compromise. We chose to optimize for the national security space mission set that was in this RFP. We have great capability to fly commercial missions, the civil missions for NASA are enveloped by the national security mission set, but it’s purpose built for this RFP.
Meaning size and weight?
Exactly. To put a finer point on that, if we were optimizing for the commercial mission set, it would be a smaller rocket.
Back in the old days we would talk about the eight reference missions for the U.S. government mission set. Now there are nine and they’re more difficult than the ones we had before because of the government’s understanding of space as a contested environment. They updated those requirements.
Meaning different locations?
Yes. Bigger masses, higher energy orbits. Harder to do missions.
We designed Vulcan on that set. Then we did one more thing that should help us in the competition. I looked at the requirements that they gave us in the RFP, this is the government’s best analysis and understanding of what they’re going to need to cope with this new environment, contested space. I believe that’s going to change over time because we’re just at the very beginning of this journey.
When we looked at designing our rocket to meet their need, I asked our team to give it more capability and more flexibility than they were asking for, so as the requirements evolve over time, I’m giving the government flexibility and not having a rocket that may not suit the needs that appear a little bit down the road.
Everyone in industry is talking about low-Earth orbit constellations. How do you fit into that picture? We haven’t heard a lot from the Department of Defense about small satellites.
The DoD has released some public information about their ideas on that.
The LEO constellations are what you’re hearing, referred to now as proliferated LEO or latency constellations. About three years ago, we got pretty excited when they first started talking about them because they said: “We’re going to darken the skies with satellites.”
These constellations, they were going to have 3,000 or 4,000 satellites in them. It was a bunch of launches and we got all excited.
Then time went by and they had to get access to capital. During that time they refined their designs and architectures. So the constellations got way smaller.
They figured out that you don’t have to do all LEO; some of the constellations are now hybrids, where they have relays and [medium-Earth orbits] or [geostationary orbit], and basically the size of these things came down by about a factor of 10. Still interesting worldwide, there will probably be room for two or three of these providers.
Eventually when they’re actually going up in quantities, they’ll start small and then you’ll get big.
It might be five or 10 additional launches total per year.
But that’s significant.
It absolutely is. It’s going to happen at about the end of the ’20s.
You just can’t put up enough satellites fast enough one at a time with small launchers to get the businesses going. The downside of these constellations is that there’s pretty much zero utility with one satellite. They actually have to have dozens on orbit before they can offer service at all. What pretty much all of them are expecting to do is to initially populate their satellites with medium and heavy lift launch vehicles that will take up large numbers at once.
Then there is a secondary or afterwards market, perhaps a better phrase, for smaller launchers that take up one or two at a time to do maintenance of that constellation because there will be satellites that experience infant mortality.
Although the constellation is perhaps resilient to the loss of one or two, it depends on where they are. If you lose a satellite here and there in one of these LEO constellations, that probably doesn’t matter. If you lose two or three right next to each other, there’s a blank spot.
There will be a need to replace those. I anticipate they’ll use smaller launch vehicles for that space. Then eventually there will be another repopulation wave of newest technology.
Are you talking to some of those companies?
Absolutely. Today I won’t say who. When they need us we’ll be here for them.
What about with the DoD?
DoD is looking at the same thing. You’ll see Fred Kennedy, [director of the Space Development Agency], talking about a military purpose for a similar proliferated LEO constellation. Doing much of the same things with data, communications.
Could that fall into the scope of the RFP?
That is outside what is imagined for this procurement, so he’ll have to come up with his own strategy. I don’t know if he’ll do a separate competition or if he’ll participate in this, or whether he won’t even be flying until this has already run its course.
We have a series of reforms going on with military space. How do those change what you do and how you run the business?
Not that much. The entity that we deal with directly is our customer, who is part of all of those, so we might be in a different organization [supporting contracts]. It might even have a different uniform. I expect it will largely be the same team. I will observe that in 2.0, which is a reorganization of [the Space and Missile Systems Center], where we have seen greater efficiency and speed.
When they say we’ll get back to you, it doesn’t take six weeks, it takes three.
Exactly. They’re faster when we work with them. Lt. Gen. John Thompson, [the commander of the center], has done a good job there.