It may not have a reusable rocket, or even the prospect of one, but that doesn’t mean United Launch Alliance isn’t without a few advantages of its own in competing for commercial launch orders. On Wednesday, ULA introduced a new website, called RocketBuilder.com, meant to highlight its newfound commitment to transparency, lowering launch prices and becoming more competitive against competitors, including arch-rival SpaceX.
Ostensibly intended to allow prospective customers to compare the prices for different orbits on multiple variations of the Atlas V booster, the new site also functions as a clever piece of marketing to remind those customers of three of ULA’s best attributes; its sterling launch success record, increasing availability of open launch slots and corresponding lack of delays in lofting payloads on time. Each exploits an obvious weakness with SpaceX, which has only exacerbated pre-existing challenges of meeting its busy manifest with the September 1st explosion of a Falcon 9 and its payload during a pre-launch wet dress rehearsal.
“Users have the flexibility to select a launch date, the satellite’s orbit, rocket configuration and the customized service level needed for the mission. Finally, the site will capture savings in extra revenue or mission life, provide the true total cost (emphasis added) of the specific mission requirements, and allow users to begin the contracting process.”
While a quick run-though of the estimator reveals ULA is still quite a bit more expensive than SpaceX at $109 v $62 million for even a bare-bones Atlas V versus the Falcon 9, it is the helpfully added “additional value” segment which may really raise some eyebrows. Taking the fullest advantage of flight and schedule reliability, ULA claims an added value of $12 million versus the industry average for insurance, $27 million for schedule certainty and a whopping $30 million in extra value from orbit optimization due to extended service revenue. In other words it claims more added value than the actual launch cost SpaceX charges for the Falcon 9.
ULA is hardly the only company to engage in a bit of creative accounting when it comes to finding ways to justify a clearly more expensive product to a skeptical public. Another which comes somewhat ironically to mind is Tesla Motors, which rolled a few eyeballs of its own when it suggested assigning a dollar value for time saved at the gas pump for high salaried individuals in promoting the Model S.
Still, there is no getting around the fact that despite the effort to promote the Atlas V to a commercial market which it believes may be growing a bit wobbly regarding the Falcon 9, it is the Department of Defense and the National Reconnaissance Office which still commands ULA’s greatest attention. Understandably from its perspective, the company is eager to push a narrative that leads to factors other than cost being taken into consideration when national security launches are competed.
Along those lines, one suspects the RocketBuilder site may be shown off in the halls of Congress and the Pentagon at least as frequently as it is with commercial launch customers, whose orders will actually come through Lockheed Martin Launch Services rather than ULA itself. In those instances, the “added values” may be purely conjectural. Among the benefits cited by ULA in its new offering, it is worth recalling that the U.S. government does not buy launch insurance, and there is no additional revenue to be factored in at either the beginning or the end of a spacecraft’s life cycle.