50 Launches and Going Nowhere

United Launch Alliance conducted the 50th launch of the EELV program with an NRO payload carried to orbit by an Atlas V 401.  In a fawning interview conducted by SpaceFlight Now, which failed to mention either the 1 Billion dollar per year subsidy masquerading as the Launch Capability Contract,  or the Atlas V’s Russian main engine,  ULA CEO Michael Gass made an interesting argument for continued monopoly.

“”Competition works if is there is sufficient market demand to sustain multiple suppliers. In the absence of sufficient market demand, competition for competition-sake will only drive up costs. Forced competition in the absence of adequate market may jeopardize reliability, endanger our national security and drive up total cost to the U.S. government,”

Forced competition?  An interesting insight into mindset of someone enjoying the privileges of a government granted monopoly. For the rest of us,  competition is a matter of individual or collective will and the desire to achieve and to win.  That  desire fuels innovation, progress and improvement , and in the process opens new markets.

Gass’s comments also ignore the fact that the “market” for launch services is not limited to the U.S.  government, as evidenced by the fact that SpaceX has more than 20 commercial launches on its manifest. But then again, considering the fact that Delta IV was withdrawn from the market because it was not price competitive, perhaps it is easier to pretend that wider markets don’t exist in the first place.

One of the more interesting aspects of the ULA worldview is that fact that it appears to fly directly in the face of the motivating rationale for the Commercial Crew program, which is built on the premise of using competition to lower costs.  One can only wonder what Bigelow Aerospace makes of the fact that one of its leading potential business partners apparently does not believe there is a connection between competition and reaching the lower cost level which would allow deployment of a Bigelow station, a clear market expansion.

The bottom line is that while 50 straight launches is a noteworthy achievement, if your interest in space includes an expanding commercial base and steady reduction in the costs of getting there, it doesn’t matter whether ULA has conducted 5 launches or 5, 000, the answer lies elsewhere.

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