Earlier today, United Launch Alliance CEO and President Michael Gass abruptly retired immediately following what was surely a tense board meeting. Mr. Gass was presumably let go after sanctions by Russia left the future of ULA’s workhorse, the Atlas V, in question.
The ULA is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed to provide launch services. Their main customer is the US Federal government and the bulk of their flights are for the US Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office. NASA’s Mars rovers were also launched by ULA rockets. ULA was formed to consolidate operations and control costs for government space missions. Unfortunately, this has resulted in an effective monopoly and costs for government-related launches have gone through the roof.
ULA relies on two main launchers, Delta IV and Atlas V. Both of these are expandable and flexible to accommodate different launch requirements. The first stage of the Atlas V relies on the RD-180 engine, which is imported from Russia and is a result of the Soviet Union’s efforts to build a Moon rocket in the 1960s. It is a direct descendant of the NK-33, which was featured on the N1.
Though ULA bought the designs and the rights to build an American version of the RD-180, they have not because it would cost billions of dollars and at least three years. It was simply easier and cheaper in the short term to buy the engines from Russia. With tensions between the United States and Russia over Russia’s attempted annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, the Russian government has made it as difficult as possible for ULA to buy these engines. Without any more engines coming in, ULA has enough for another three years of Atlas V flights.
Besides putting several American national security launches at the mercy of the Russian government, this is also likely to interfere with ULA’s participation NASA’s Commercial Crew program. Of the three candidate spacecraft, two of them, Boeing’s CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser, are expecting to use the Atlas V at around the same time the RD-180 stockpile dries up. (The third ship is SpaceX’s Dragon, which already makes use of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket.)
With growing competition from new aerospace companies, SpaceX in particular, and a fleet of aging hardware, ULA needs to move fast to survive. They need cheaper, more capable launch vehicles with all major components (including engines) produced domestically. In the short term, plans should be made to sunset Atlas V after the existing stockpile of RD-180s is exhausted, but retain the Delta II and Delta IV series until a new vehicle can be put into service.
Delta IV’s use of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) is a clever idea and it should be retained. Russia’s upcoming Angara rocket family will eventually supplant Dnepr, Rokot, Proton, and Soyuz for most launch situations and will make use of its own version of the CBC. By manufacturing large quantities of smaller, identical stages and combining them as necessary, there is potential to drive costs down.
Both ULA systems use liquid oxygen as an oxidizer. The current Atlas V uses RP-1 and Delta IV uses liquid hydrogen. Other rockets, like Proton use hypergolic fuels, which are highly corrosive. There are advantages and disadvantages to every fuel combination and the best one to used would depend on the primary application of the rocket, as well as forthcoming technologies. The ideal fuel would depend on what sort of work ULA is doing in five years. If it’s small payloads, a solid-fuel rocket like the Minotaur would be appropriate. For the moment, Atlas V’s RP-1 first stage and LH2 Centaur upper stage are a very effective combination and would be ideal for medium-lift situations.
ULA went a long time without any meaningful competition and it will take some time for it to become competitive again. I am a big SpaceX fan and I hope that they will be allowed to fairly compete for Air Force contracts alongside ULA. That said, I wish ULA success and to compete with SpaceX so they can force each other to be better.