Editorial: What if the ULA Merger Never Happened?

Image Credit : ULA


Karl Marx once said “The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.”

He may have been right on at least this point.

Underscoring once again America’s self-inflicted dependence on Russian technology for launching its own most expensive intelligence assets, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V delivered a National Reconnaissance Office satellite to orbit yesterday.

U.S. dependence on the Moscow built RD-180 engine main powering the Atlas V has finally come under what many consider to a well justified level of increased scrutiny due to elevated tensions between the U.S. and Russia over the latter’s annexation of the Crimea from Ukraine. That yesterday’s launch, conducted by a government backed monopoly, was a spy satellite, one which will no doubt soon be spying on Russia, it almost makes you wonder who is the capitalist in this odd vignette.  

Commenting on the launch, the second in wake of a recent Congressional hearing which focused in part on the RD-180, ULA President Michael Gass sought once again to justify the position:

“ULA’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets are the most powerful and most reliable in the world. They are the only rockets that fully meet the unique and specialized needs of the national security community.”

For what it is worth,  while the Delta IV Heavy is currently the most powerful booster in the world, the Ariane V outperforms the Atlas V in both LEO and GTO payload capacity, and with 59 consecutive successful launches in a row, is by most measures, the most reliable.  It is also economically successful. Not to worry though, the ULA products are the undisputed world leaders in one key metric, costs.

Despite a further statement by Gass that ULA  “is reviewing every requirement and every process to eliminate any unnecessary or inefficient elements,”  EELV program budget projections clearly indicate that ULA is not going to be abandoning its “Champaign dreams and caviar wishes” approach to the launch industry anytime soon.  

Imagine then, what would be the current scenario, if the ULA merger had never been allowed to take place. Specifically, presume for the moment that Boeing and Lockheed Martin had both continued to operate separately, receiving the subsidies they were already getting in 2004-2006.  Furthermore, assume that despite threats to the contrary, neither abandoned the launch business.

Having eventually recovered from the “timeout” imposed by the document theft scandal which initially set it back, Boeing would have undoubtedly unleashed its own considerable lobbying power against Lockheed Martin, and it is difficult to believe that the RD-180 would not have become a key point of contention. Rather than being allowed to kick the can down the road because the one party most likely to object to ongoing reliance on the RD-180 was effectively muzzled, Lockheed Martin might well have been forced to re-invest in the US industrial base rather than continue outsourcing it to Russia for another decade. The result, we would already have an “Americanized” RD-180 rather than current appeals to subsidize its production even as the engine is being eclipsed by SpaceX’s march towards re-usability.

On the other hand, perhaps the nation’s largest defense contractor really would have made good on suggestions that it was pulling out of the launch market.  In that case, the U.S. would have been left with what we now have anyway, a launch monopoly, but one dominated by Boeing.  Still objectionable for sure, but with roughly double the number of RS-68 engines (as well as other airframe components) being built in the U.S., and two fewer launch pads to maintain, the unit costs would have decreased. After all, this is the core of ULA’s own arguments to the Air Force to justify the 36 core block buy. 

As for the one apparent downside, the lack of a redundant launch capability in two independent booster lines, two points are worth noting.  The first is that it is a benefit which never really existed due to the fact that both rely on the RL-10 engine for their respective upper stages, albeit in different versions. It was further undermined when Atlas V core production was moved to the Decatur, Al. Boeing facility. One natural, or unnatural disaster, takes out both.

Finally, we come to reliability, the overarching reason which is used to justify the exorbitant costs of both the Atlas V and the Delta IV, and the one word certain to punctuate nearly every utterance from the company, imploring us to ignore the fast moving, efficient competitor drawing closer every day. Both ULA boosters are indeed wonderfully reliable, but so too are the Ariane V, the Soyuz, and even the Indian PSLV. It may be in fact, that reliability is now the rule rather than the exception for most launch systems.

But, going back to the sterling record amassed by the Atlas V and Delta IV and the alternate history scenario put forward, there is no reason to believe that if the ULA joint venture had been denied based on well founded concerns that it would raise costs and reduce competition, and Lock-Mart had left the launch industry, the outcome would have been any different. Because of the Delta IV’s reliability, the U.S. would not have lost a single satellite. In fact, by any normal measure, reliability would have increased due to more launches of fewer booster combinations. Therein lies half the answer of what to do now, in this reality, about American dependence on the RD-180.  

The other half is scheduled for liftoff at 4:58 pm EDT on Monday, April 14th.

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2 Comments on "Editorial: What if the ULA Merger Never Happened?"

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  1. Craig says:

    Karl Marx actually never said that. The quote was misattributed to him.


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