Random ULA Thoughts

[Disclaimer: My current company and former company have both done work with ULA. In fact, we just started another small IRAD project with ULA. We’ve also done work with SpaceX in the past, but our current work with ULA is a potential bias I wanted to state up front. I’m not being paid by ULA or encouraged to make these points, and I don’t have any super-secret inside knowledge about Vulcan or their inner workings. This is just my opinion, and I feel like I need to share it, even if people will blow me off as being a ULA shill.]

There is a lot of debate swirling around the future of ULA, Vulcan, the RD-180, etc. I had a few quick thoughts I wanted to share that I think don’t get a lot of air-time. While these could be construed as pro-ULA, I’m also on the record as being a fan of real competition, letting SpaceX compete for DoD contracts as soon as possible, and getting rid of the ELC subsidy for ULA. Here’s my thoughts:

  1. While creating incentives to wean ULA off of the RD-180 may make some sense, there is no good reason for doing so in a way that hobbles ULA and makes it impossible for it to compete with SpaceX.
  2. Some will point out that Russia threatened to cut off supply of the RD-180, but the reality is they have no good reason to do so, and really hold very little leverage over the US once SpaceX is certified to fly EELV-class national security payloads. Cutting off the RD-180 only strengthens SpaceX, the one serious competitor to the Russian Soyuz, Proton, and Angara vehicles. No, the RD-180 “supply issues” are entirely a creation of our Congress.
  3. We bought titanium from the USSR during the Cold War, and as mentioned above, Russia has even less leverage on us today with RD-180s and Atlas V than it did then with Titanium supplies.
  4. ULA really does need to downselect to just one launcher family to be competitive. And the only reason it didn’t do so sooner was because without SpaceX being certified for DoD payloads, the DoD required them to keep both EELV families flying for assured access purposes. By ditching over half of their pads, over half of their configurations, etc., they can significantly consolidate their supplier base, and cut down on duplicative capabilities. They would’ve already done this if the DoD had allowed them to previously.
  5. The move to drop Delta-IV is not just a cynical move to try and force our Congress to not be stupid re: the RD-180. And it’s not just that the Delta-IV is less competitive (but you’d think that letting companies shed uncompetitive product lines wouldn’t be such a sore spot with so-called commercial space enthusiasts…). Vulcan is based on the Atlas V and Centaur. If Atlas V were retired, it would be nearly impossible to keep the Atlas V/Centaur supplier base alive long enough to get Vulcan flying. Could you force Vulcan to be more Delta-IV derived so you could force them to shut down their more competitive launcher? Sure. It would just guarantee that Vulcan wouldn’t be as competitive in the marketplace, wouldn’t be as capable, and would be less useful to our military. Could you do it anyway? Sure. And you could stick your hand in the blender and turn it on. There’s no limit to stupid self-defeating things you could do if you put your mind to it. Does anyone else see how ridiculous this line of thinking is though?
  6. The US is served far better by having two healthy and competitive launch service providers than it is with either a ULA or a SpaceX monopoly. It’s also much better served by a healthy SpaceX and ULA w/ Vulcan than it would be with a healthy SpaceX and a ULA that’s only kept alive on life-support from the government. Just as we were all better off with Intel and AMD, Windows and Mac, Apple and Samsung, we’re better off having healthy competition than artificially stifling things in either player’s favor.

I don’t think it’s the government’s job to make ULA successful, but they shouldn’t be telling them what launchers they can build and what engines they can buy either. Make them compete, but let them compete!

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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33 Responses to Random ULA Thoughts

  1. David says:

    From the beginning the plan was to develop a US version of the RD-180. LMA and the Air Force sold it this way – that we would never find ourselves in this situation because we would have a US built version of the 180 available. Instead LMA got greedy (and later ULA) and the AF were simply idiots. Time to pay the price. This is not a situation created by the Russians or Congress, it was created by LMA/ULA and the AF… and they are the ones that get to suffer the consequences.

  2. reader says:

    You used the word “impossible” twice here. If ULA is an investable, worthwhile concern, someone will invest money, energy and talent in it, and impossible becomes possible.
    The rules of the engagement were abruptly redefined for ULA by outside forces, an unexpected competitor showing up and improbably almost succeeding and Putin getting old and cranky. Adjust and survive, like everyone else.

    They should have had a replacement engine as a readily executable option lined up for years. Instead, the remnants of previous US propulsion industry were sitting idle and stagnated for decades, only occasionally fed by random government whims to build half-complete ideas of engines. ULA, as a centrally mandated single US launch provider of the last decade kinda bears significant share of responsibility for this.

  3. ken anthony says:

    Sound reasoning. Long term SpaceX needs better competition. I’d like to see markets expand with more players which probably only happens when we get serious about moving out into the solar system.

  4. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    David,
    What situation are we in? We still have a vendor willing to sell us engines. It’s Congress (and particularly a few personalities like John McCain) who do not want to let ULA keep buying those engines. That’s an artificial problem created by Congress in my case. ULA is actively trying to resolve it with Vulcan, but squeezing them by the balls when they’re trying to fix the problem doesn’t help.

    ~Jon

  5. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Reader,
    To be fair I said “nearly impossible” the second time. But my point is this–just because a business case closes when you’re allowed to do things smart doesn’t mean you can still close the case if forced to do things foolishly. Making ULA do things in a way that is much more expensive can quickly move it from being an investable option to something that doesn’t close anymore.

    And once gain, the only issue here is that our Congress is not allowing ULA to buy engines it already had a contract for, which Russia is still willing to sell. This is an artificial crisis created by our Congress, not some act of God or foreign enemies. They already are actively working on moving to Vulcan because they know sticking with the RD-180 long-term doesn’t make sense. Putting artificial constraints on our launch industry is just foolish, regardless of what ULA should’ve done in the past.

    ~Jon

    ~Jon

  6. David says:

    Jon,

    LMA/ULA/AF said they would have a US produced version of the 180 available – it was tossed out as a backup should the Russians ever not sell the 180 to us. I agree we still have a supply of engines available – but Russian has threatened to stop (we can argue if they will… you are likely correct, they won’t), and that threat is a more than sufficient reason to require a switch to a new engine. LMA/ULA/AF said they would have that engine when they started the EELV program – they don’t, and that is solely on their shoulders – not congress’s, and not Russia’s. Yes congress is putting them between a rock and a hard spot, but I still feel that ultimately it is LMA/ULA/AF’s fault. I also feel that unless they are pressured they will not change. It’s clear that LMA/Boeing are not convinced of Vulcan’s value to their company’s future… and I don’t see them seriously doing anything without the continued pressure they are getting.

    If Boeing and LMA don’t want to invest in ULA, and in the near term, if they don’t want to help ULA through this tough spot… then ULA is destined to die anyway. ULA can not compete unless Boeing and LMA want to compete… they hold the purse strings. But right now both companies are not even supporting ULA’s stated goals… giving out money only quarter by quarter. So why should we believe they won’t simply fall back on the 180 again if the ban is relaxed… waiting … and then asking for yet another extension later?

  7. reader says:

    Putting artificial constraints on our launch industry is just foolish, regardless of what ULA should’ve done in the past.

    Constraints that force the equation to improve are IMHO not foolish, and in this case this forcing function is already showing the benefits – US rocket propulsion industry is recovering and will be rebuilt, in a stronger shape that makes it actually possible to build the future all the space cadets want.

  8. David, Reader,
    My fundamental issue is that if this is supposed to help the industry, as opposed to just trying to force ULA to use Aerojet as a contractor, they’re going about it in a very funny way. ULA presented a plan (going with the BE-4 and Vulcan) they are actively working to get off of the RD-180 faster than any other realistic option. Instead of then working with ULA to make sure the RD-180 ban is done in a way to incentivize them to move without making the transition harder than it needs to be, they’re deliberately making Vulcan harder to bring to market. Congress has already studied the issue and knows there’s only so fast a new engine can be brought to market. Instead of setting up the ban to only penalize them if they aren’t going faster than possible, they’re setting it up to prevent ULA from being able to compete while the transition is going on. That’s just stupid.

    Basically it’s a case of “OMG the Russians are threatening to hurt our industry by cutting off our supply of RD-180 engines. So, to solve the problem, let’s cut off our industry’s supply of RD-180 engines!”

    Who needs Russia as an enemy when we have the US Congress deliberately sabotaging our own launch industry?

    ~Jon

  9. David says:

    ULA has Delta IV… Boeing and LMA can simply eat their losses until they can compete effectively. The whole point of assured access was just that… ASSURED… and ULA (and previously Boeing and LMA) got billions to assure we had that access. To then turn around and tell us they can’t afford it is total BS. They made billions in the past, they can either afford to keep up their end of the bargain – or go out of business. A number of groups made bad decisions, but that is not a reason for us to bail them out.

  10. Don says:

    David,
    We’re weeks from having SpaceX certified to carry EELV payloads. They provide the alternative to ULA’s Atlas to provide assured access to space.

    A number of groups made bad decisions, but that is not a reason for us to bail them out.

    No one is asking to be ‘bailed out’, they’re simply asking to be allowed to compete on an even footing with SpaceX.

  11. David says:

    No… they are asking to be allowed to continue using an engine they said they would have a replacement for in case of an event like this. They had, and have a monopoly – they have been receiving billions to MAINTAIN their systems – not even launch. I think they had ample time and been given more than their share of monies. They are asking for the status quo to continue. I don’t think they deserve it – and I do think ‘bailing out’ qualifies since they said they would not allow themselves into this situation and their choices have led to this. The were not forced to not develop a domestically produced 180 (or equivalent) like they said the would when they started the EELV program.

    As for being on an even footing… they are already being subsidized over and beyond their launch cost for maintaining their ‘ASSURED’ access… SpaceX has alread pointed out that the playing field is far from being on an even footing.

    Too late, too little. Let ULA/LMA/Boeing either put up their own monies or let them fail.

  12. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    David,
    I’m not sure your understanding of assured access matches my understanding. As I understand it, what the DoD meant by “assured access” was that they were paying ULA to keep Delta-IV flying, even though it wasn’t competitive. They wanted two launch vehicle families in case one of them suffered a launch failure. In other words, the USAF was paying the costs of keeping Delta-IV alive and operational, and they got what they paid for.

    As Don pointed out, ULA is not asking for money or a bail out. They’re asking now that SpaceX is certified to be able to ditch their less affordable vehicle, and be allowed to compete for government launches (and not be arbitrarily banned from buying the engine they need from a supplier that’s willing to sell) while they develop Vulcan on their own dime. That’s not a bail out by any honest stretch of the imagination.

    ~Jon

  13. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    David,
    You’re entitled to your opinion, even if I think it’s foolish and would be very detrimental to our nation’s space industry. I don’t get why you think Congress should be in the business of arbitrarily deciding what companies can produce, and which vendors they can use. ULA is trying to work a plan that won’t ask for any government money to get to a competitive vehicle that can give us redundancy and hopefully be competitive on the world market. They are trying to spend their own money to solve this problem, but you’re supporting Congress in being an active roadblock to that goal.

    Once again, if cutting off the RD-180 supply is supposed to be some evil act that Putin is threatening to hurt our launch industry, why is Congress trying to one-up him?

    ~Jon

  14. David says:

    And if Putin cut off the RD 180 tomorrow? Why is ULA allowed to kill off their only vehicle that guarantees their assured access.

    One day they argue they need money to keep both Altas and Delta flying… Next day they want an extension to keep Altas flying. I am not simply blaming ULA for this, the airforce is to blame as well. We will have assured access… Space X with Falcon, and ULA with Delta. They don’t have to cost the same – the air force has to accept they have to pay more for the Delta for assured access. Just as NASA is paying OSC more for payloads (per kg) to ISS, and is also going to be paying Boeing more for CST-100. Let the air force suffer as well.

    I just don’t see why we bail out the Atlas V in the form of an extension.

    If ULA did not exist today and the AF wanted assured access… it would likely let LMA and the Atlas go (for lack of 180s) and go with SpaceX and Boeing. ULA should not be allowed to kill off Delta with one hand, and then beg for an extension with the other. It does not make sense – it does not assure access since Putin COULD cut us off and we would be left with just SpaceX – and that is not a good situation. But if we go with Delta and Falcon – we are assured American access, and yes it means the AF has to pay more or launch less. Tough.

    On top of this… neither Boeing or LMA are even fully behind Vulcan, and until they are it’s foolish to even consider backing off on the RD 180 buys. ULA should keep Delta going. ULA and the AF should suck it up and pay for their mistakes, and that means $ and likely an adjustment in what gets launched until we are out of this mess.

  15. Don says:

    David,

    . The were not forced to not develop a domestically produced 180 (or equivalent) like they said the would when they started the EELV program.

    Even if P&W had developed a domestic version of the RD-180 ULA would still be in the same bind. The law that prevents them from buying a Russian engine also prevents them from using any Russian designed engine.

    And if Putin cut off the RD 180 tomorrow? Why is ULA allowed to kill off their only vehicle that guarantees their assured access./i>

    If Putin did decide to cut off RD-180 access literally tomorrow, then that’s a different matter. ULA would still have Delta to use. They’re not stopping production for a couple of years. After that? Well, short term, that’s why we have SpaceX. ULA doesn’t have to provide assured access, the Air Force does. Long term? That’s a good question. I know that currently ULA gets engines a couple of years ahead of launch. It could very well be they’ll have the engines stockpiled for use post block-buy before ending Delta. They said they’d also maintain Delta Heavy capability for as long as the Air Force asked. So it might be possible for them to start turning out Delta’s as a no-other-choice last resort.

    If the engines do get withheld and ULA is stuck without them at least it was the Russians, and ULA’s choice to use their engines, and not some arbitrary US law that made it happen.

    >But if we go with Delta and Falcon – we are assured American access, and yes it means the AF has to pay more or launch less. Tough.

    So, you’re not in favor of an open competition for EELV launches? How do you dole out the launches then? Half each? Great, so the Air Force replaced an expensive rocket and a really expensive rocket with a cheap rocket and a really expensive rocket. That’s progress, I suppose.

    On top of this… neither Boeing or LMA are even fully behind Vulcan, and until they are it’s foolish to even consider backing off on the RD 180 buys.

    No, Boeing and LockMart are hesitant to commit any real resources into a new program when Congress is basically on one hand stomping on their hope of becoming a viable competitor (not just an alternative) to SpaceX, and on the other trying to give away a billion dollars for a new rocket engine that no one really wants, with a deadline that’s too late to help ULA. From their POV it’s “Hey, keep your money, let us have the engines we ordered and let the free market decide who wins these EELV contracts”.

  16. David says:

    1st, I don’t think a domestically produced 180 would count as a Russian engine. Why would it? If there was some clause that would allow the Russians to stop us making it then maybe – the ban on the 180 is because of Russia’s actions in the international arena, and our believe that they have a strangle hold on us. LMA promised to domestically produce the engine, they did not. We are both speculating if the law would apply, I personally doubt it would exist because we would not be in the situation of directly buying 180s from Russia.

    As to LMA/Boeing supporting the Vulcan. LMA should have supported building the domestic 180 when they said they would. Now they are looking for the cheap way out, and I don’t think they deserve it. They made poor choices, so let Altas die and go with Delta. You of course disagree, and that’s fine.

    I am in favor of open competition – but the AF wants assured access… The AF has to balance this, not the free market. You can’t have both without some give and take. NASA pays more to OSC for ISS cargo, they are paying boeing more to supply the same crew to ISS… but NASA decided it wanted two horses in the game. AF has to be willing to make some hard balancing choices as well.

    If you want assured access… you by default have to balance competition. One supplier is always going to be cheaper, and if you are the only customer then that makes it tough to have assured access.

  17. For DoD and the NRO assured access for expensive payloads, cost is irrelevant.

    ULA already has the Delta IV to back up the Falcon 9 for DoD and NRO assured access.

    ULA is is still free to pursue other payloads with the Atlas V. If you can’t follow this logic, I can’t help you. You’re flailing around here for your client.

  18. reader says:

    They are trying to spend their own money to solve this problem
    You say ‘trying to spend their own money’ like this is something rare and exceptionally noble.
    Lets try harder. Spend more, spend faster, don’t invest in one, invest in three competing engines. Ask your rich parents for a good chunk of investment. Bring the chestnuts out of the fire.

    Lift the RD180 ban, and that pressure goes away, and progress inevitably slows down. I don’t want progress to slow down.
    Besides, if you don’t ban it now, then when ? Give them 6 months, 12 or 24 ? They were already given more than a decade.

  19. Don says:

    David,

    As to LMA/Boeing supporting the Vulcan. LMA should have supported building the domestic 180 when they said they would.

    Why? This ‘crisis’ is one of our own manufacturing… One stroke of the pen and *poof* the immediate problem goes away. We’ve been using RD-180s for over 15 years. Despite periods heightened tensions with Russia in the past (Georgia conflict) the shipments came and they keep coming. The Air Force didn’t see any problem with them not starting domestic production, and they’re the customer.

    Now they are looking for the cheap way out, and I don’t think they deserve it.

    They’re not taking the cheap way out. The cheap way out would have been to cash in on the $1B Congress is making the USAF give out to spur engine development. Instead they’re investing their own money into engine development.

    Reader,

    Lets try harder. Spend more, spend faster, don’t invest in one, invest in three competing engines.

    There’s not three companies in the US that develop hydrocarbon engines for sale. However they are funding development of two engines. As for trying harder… As von Braun once said “You can’t have a baby in 1 month by getting 9 women pregnant.”

    Besides, if you don’t ban it now, then when ? Give them 6 months, 12 or 24 ?

    Considering it takes around 5-6 years to develop a rocket engine and certify the launch vehicle for EELV contracts, an immediate ban does seem a little severe.

    They were already given more than a decade.

    Everyone keeps saying that like it was an actual deadline. There’s nothing currently stopping us from using the RD-180, except Congress.

  20. Ken Del Piero says:

    Jon,

    I have admired your writings and thoughts for many years. I can’t agree with you this time — such a strange position from someone with your political perspective.

    LM, Boeing, and ULA have been “welfare bums” in so many ways for so very long they had become major impediments to progress. They had become the antithesis of entrepreneurship. In the meantime, those “socialist” Europeans (with their own subsidies) took over the “wests” commercial launch capability. That should embarrass the U.S. Perhaps ULA can change. I would argue that they showed no motivation to do so until SpaceX showed up.

    Other than this, keep up the good work!

  21. reader says:

    This is somewhat going in circles.
    Do you agree that stagnation of US domestic propulsion industry is a bad thing ? If yes, then we are only arguing about when is the right time to stop relying on foreign engines.
    IMO the ban is a decade, maybe two late. Consensus is obviously going with 2015. Nothing prevented ULA from actually invest in their own survival circa 2010. Its not like any engine project has to be a clean sheet design, the decade is littered with half finished engine projects.

    So what is that catastrophe that will happen if the RD180 is being cut off ? You have to stretch out your manifests and suck up losses operating an inferior design ? Maybe even spend a year with no launches ? Big deal, if you are worthwhile, you’ll come out better from it. If not, tough luck, someone else will come scoop up the pieces and make something better.

  22. Don says:

    This is somewhat going in circles.

    Agreed.

    Of course stagnation of US domestic propulsion is a bad thing, from a philosophical point of view. From a business point of view though… You basically have 4 domestic orbital launch orgs. There’s NASA, recycling old Shuttle technology… Nobody is blazing any trails there. SpaceX is doing their own thing, and doing well because of it. Good on them. Orbital wanted a hydrocarbon engine and couldn’t find anything decent that was American, so they went with Russia. Don’t see anyone giving them crap, by the way, for not paying out of pocket to make a hydrocarbon engine on their own. And there’s ULA. 10 years ago they had a great engine at a competitive cost. There were no hydrocarbon engines in the US that could take its place. In fact we’re just now in the past few years able to start working with the complex metallurgies of high-performance hydrocarbon engines. We didn’t have the tech. Even with the Russians helping us, it was difficult.

    I guess it basically comes down to this. Why make an American engine? There are two reasons. Because its The Right Thing To Do, and so you don’t have to rely on the Russians. The Right Thing To Do is a hard business case to make. And as far as reliance on the Russians, at this point that’s still not an issue. A year after Crimea, they’re still shipping them to us. The US is basing more troops in Europe, doing more exercises, more shows of force, and they’re still shipping them to us. There’s no problem, except for Congress… You need to buy them to finish your contract? No problem. You need to buy them to ship cargo or astronauts to the space station? No problem. You need to buy them to put a communications sat in orbit? No problem. You need one to send up a GPS sat in 2 years? Whoa! Hold your horses! Uh uh, no way! Thats bad

    So what is that catastrophe that will happen if the RD180 is being cut off ?

    It’s just that its so arbitrary. If the problem of using Russian engines is so bad that ULA shouldn’t be able to compete for DOD launches with them then it should be bad for anyone, for any purpose. Commercial crew? CRS2? Thats it, shut it down. SpaceX wins. Use SLS as a backup Sorry, you guys had 7 years or more years now since CRS started out. You should of developed your own US engine before entering the competition… Oh, and good luck trying to man-rate Delta.

    If this problem were because Russia cut off all supplies of RD-180, then I’d have no sympathy. But this is different…

  23. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Ken,
    Thanks for the kind words about the blog!

    I wouldn’t lump ULA in the same category as its parent companies as far as being not very entrepreneurial. They haven’t done as well as they would’ve liked, but it isn’t for lack of trying. Their parent companies only came around to letting them start to make big changes very recently. But even with not-very-supportive parents who didn’t let them roll much of their profit into improvements and innovations (preferring to extract the profits to pay back the original investments LM and Boeing made in the late 90s/early 2000s), they still have done more things than they get credit for, such as their partnerships with entrepreneurial small space companies like XCOR on the RL-10 replacement, Masten on the Xeus lander, and their work with non-traditional aerospace providers like Roush on the IVF project.

    But, I agree that now that SpaceX is a real threat, they’re being given a lot more rope by their parent companies to make the major changes needed to become competitive. I think this is a good thing, and am just frustrated that Congress is trying to sabotage them when they’re finally starting to act more entrepreneurially, and starting to make the drastic changes they need to stay relevant.

    Thanks again for the kind words on the blog!

    ~Jon

  24. jimjxr says:

    While creating incentives to wean ULA off of the RD-180 may make some sense, there is no good reason for doing so in a way that hobbles ULA and makes it impossible for it to compete with SpaceX.

    Then we need an alternative incentive, nobody seems to have one yet. And it’s pretty clear that ULA’s parent companies are not eager to go with the plan for replacing RD-180, without an alternative incentive, what’s preventing Boeing/LM to stall Vulcan and keep asking for more RD-180?

    Cutting off the RD-180 only strengthens SpaceX, the one serious competitor to the Russian Soyuz, Proton, and Angara vehicles. No, the RD-180 “supply issues” are entirely a creation of our Congress.

    Keep using RD-180 is normalization of deviance, just because Russia hasn’t cut of the supply doesn’t mean they won’t in the next few years. The SpaceX argument doesn’t hold, since Proton failure has already run the Russian commercial launch industry into the ground, ILS hasn’t got any new contract for a year, they got nothing more to lose to SpaceX.

    We bought titanium from the USSR during the Cold War, and as mentioned above, Russia has even less leverage on us today with RD-180s and Atlas V than it did then with Titanium supplies.

    There’re alternative suppliers for titanium, since it’s raw material, it’s easy to replace one supplier with another. No so with engines and rockets, once a payload is designed for Atlas, it’s not so easy to switch it to alternative launch vehicles.

    Point 4/5/6 I agree, but all these are predicated on the assumption that ULA’s parent companies wants to compete and complete Vulcan as soon as possible, I’m not sure this assumption would hold without the RD-180 ban.

    I don’t think it’s the government’s job to make ULA successful, but they shouldn’t be telling them what launchers they can build and what engines they can buy either.

    They can if they’re the customer. While I don’t like government to dictate engineering considerations, I think a competition with the requirement of made in USA is a good policy.

  25. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Jim,
    A smarter incentive might be to tie their ability to use RD-180s beyond a certain point for DoD launches to either progress on Vulcan development, or the fraction of their profit that they’re rolling back into Vulcan development. That way, if they’re seriously working (on their own dime) on making the transition off of RD-180 happen, they get don’t get punished for doing the right thing. They only get the ban if they aren’t really trying to make Vulcan happen.

    ~Jon

  26. David says:

    A billion dollars that goes to develop an engine – not a billion dollars to ULA/LMA/Boeign… Or … We keep the status quo, allow ULA to use the 180, and allow LMA/Boeing to continue making money off the AF as they do now. ULA may want to change, I think they do. But LMA/Boeing don’t see it that way – and that’s fine. So we end up with one supplier unless the AF is serious about ponying up more cash for less to maintain assured access.

    You seem to imply that because congress wants to ban the 180 that is is some how artificial. Politics is not artificial. Yes, it’s simply the sweep of a pen in some sense, but there are REAL reasons that people feel this way – and they all point back to Russia and how Putin is acting. Those feelings are real, and their consequences are real. To simply call it ‘artificial’ is to be naive in how the world works. I am not saying I like it most of the time, but I understand it. Actions have consequences, and Russia’s actions are now having real political consequences. LMA and the AF made decisions at the start of the EELV program that have gotten themselves into this mess. I do think if they had invested in the domestic 180 that we would now be able to lean on that and more easily (from a political stance) be able to wean ourselves from the 180. That said, I personally think it was a poor decision to design a launch system with a non-american motor – one that was suppose to support national security assets.

    Politics is not my game, and maybe you will get what you hope for out of all this in the end. But however congress goes… I still think that it was ultimately LMA/AF and now ULA that is to blame for this mess, not congress.

  27. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    David,
    That seems like an oddly hypocritical recommendation on your part. ULA picks a solution that they feel will allow them to compete both for DoD/NASA missions but also compete for commercial launches, and then invests their own money to develop this and make the painful changes needed to become competitive. They ask Congress not to artificially limit their access to RD-180 engines they’ve already signed a contract for prior to Crimea (but hadn’t yet paid for at that time). To you this is a bailout.

    Aerojet Rocketdyne is part of the joint venture that provides the RD-180 to ULA, and its acquisition Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne had the rights to start domestic RD-180 production for almost 15 years now. If the RD-180 had been domesticated, it would have been an Aerojet Rocketdyne development that would’ve been built at an AR factory. A little money was spent retiring risk on some of the key ORSC preburner and turbine, but in 15 years, AR made no real attempt to setup domestic production of the RD-180. Now Aerojet Rocketdyne, instead of spending its own money, lobbies congress to try and get Congress to force the DoD to spend $1B to developing an RD-180 replacement. But somehow this isn’t a bailout in your book.

    Somehow ULA is at fault for its engine provider not setting up a domestic line for RD-180, and the engine provider is somehow innocent and pearly white, and deserves a $1B bailout. A bailout that’ll produce an engine that won’t actually allow Atlas V to stay competitive in the coming years, but will at least enrich Aerojet Rocketdyne. I’m sorry, AR is just as much to blame as ULA, and asking for a $1B bailout from the US government instead of ponying up their own money is far less entrepreneurial than what ULA is doing here.

    It’s funny how there seems to be a real Baptists and Bootleggers situation going on here, where Aerojet is lobbying the government to effectively try and kill Vulcan and for a massive engine subsidy so they can continue making unaffordable rocket engines, SpaceX is joining in to try and get their main competitor’s best chance at competition preemptively outlawed. All in the name of national security, when in reality both hurt America’s competitiveness and will likely cost the DoD more for launch in the long run.

    If one honestly feels ULA should be punished into getting off the Russian RD-180 ASAP, as opposed to buying legislators to force a vendor to use your part (Aerojet) or hobble competition (SpaceX), one would tie ULA’s ability to finish buying RD-180s that they’ve ordered for DoD missions to progress they’re making on Vulcan. If they’re investing their money and making this happen, they shouldn’t be prevented by Congress from completing a contract that they had signed long before Crimea.

    ~Jon

  28. David says:

    I never said I was for the monies that congress is throwing out there for an engine development. You misread me, and perhaps I was simply unclear. But I would agree, this is a bailout.

    But yes, continuing to allow the purchase of the RD 180 is in my mind wrong. But so is the purchase of Soyuz vehicles to ISS… we should be supporting commercial crew, and even if it costs more we should support SpaceX and the Delta IV.

    As for ULA suffering because their supplier did not build a domestic RD 180… uh, LMA and now ULA were the only customer. To say they had no inputs into this is silly. People were making more money simply skimming off the top from an over priced engine (relative to it’s actual cost… but yes, it was still cheap) sold to LMA and ultimately the AF. It made people more money to keep the status quo and not build that engine – and the AF is complicit in this too.

    We have spaceX, we have Delta IV… use them until the Vulcan can be built.

    As for contracts signed long before Crimea… pretty sure LMA said they would have a domestically built engine long before now… as party of the contract they signed with the AF at the start of the EELV program. Where is that engine? That engine that would have avoided all of these issues to begin with.

  29. David,
    Dealing with your points in reverse:
    1- I believe the requirement to do a domestic RD-180 (along with building the Atlas V Heavy) was waved when Boeing won the majority of the first-round of EELV launches (due to stealing competition sensitive information from LM).
    2- Delta-IV doesn’t support commercial crew (all the non-SpaceX Commercial Crew/Cargo competitors have baselined and been designing for the Atlas V).
    3- As I pointed out in the original article, Vulcan is based off of the Atlas V, not the Delta-IV. Canceling Atlas V would make it much harder and much more expensive (probably impossible) to develop Vulcan without government bailouts.
    4- With Delta-IV there’s no hope of winning any commercial launches, which means that when the DoD cuts down to ~5 flights per year in the 2019 timeframe, the entire company of ULA would have to be supported off of 1-2 flights, which would probably have to be given to them on a non-competed basis. That would likely end up driving the cost per flight well over $500M each. That’s not just a little more expensive. The only real hope ULA has is downselecting to a vehicle that isn’t just servicing the DoD, but also commercial markets, and Delta-IV is not that vehicle.

    I do agree with you though that commercial crew should be a top priority, and weaning ourselves from the Russians is a good idea in general. I just think we should be smart about how we do this. If done right, we could come out of this with two competitive US launch providers poised to take back most of the commercial launch market from the Russians, Chinese, and Europeans. If we do this poorly, we get one good launch provider, and a second launch provider that is ridiculously expensive and on life support. I have a hard time seeing why the latter is somehow preferable. It seems more a case of cutting off our nose to spite our face.

    ~Jon

  30. David says:

    regarding your points

    1. – I’ve heard this too, but have not found anything specific. But if true, then it just strengthens my position that this problem is as much the AF’s fault, as LMA.

    2. – I know, and I have been continuously astonished that so many companies went with Atlas even while this whole issue of the 180 was starting. Sierra Nevada, Boeing… as well as NASA’s choice of the CST-100 knowing it was tied to the Altas. Bad choices all around, but it does not change my feelings that they should never have used this engine to start with… or abandoned making a domestic version.

    3. I understand the Vulcan pedigree. That said, it’s a completely diff beast… the entire first stage is going to be different… different fuel, different sized tanks… Lox/Meth is in someways closer to the Delta design than it is to Atlas – and I would expect that much of what Boeing knows will help with this design. So no, I don’t see how this is based on the Atlas – except for the upper stage and even that has much in common across the Atlas and Boeing vehicles (Rl10). It’s more about cost… the Atlas is cheaper, and I still wonder why… (other than engine costs). Is it simply because the Atlas was cheaper because of the RD180, and so they flew it more… so it was even cheaper? Both vehicles were supposedly designed to be cheaper and compete in a commercial market.

    4. I agree with your assessment, and if the AF wants assured access then it pays that price. Maybe spaceX is not happy, but I think if they win a majority of the launches they will accept it. So you give ULA it’s 2 launches, and the rest to spaceX. I am not saying this is ideal, but at least it’s 2 american made launch systems being supported. I think you then give ULA some time period to bring out Vulcan, at which everything is competed. This is not any different than it is going to be when SpaceX is soon to be certified. Give ULA some number of years to get Vulcan working, after which everything is competed.

    Yes my choice would cost more, and hurt more. But I think some things are fundamentally worth the cost. If it was up to me, we’d stop flying Soyuz vehicles to ISS tomorrow… and I bet as a country we would find that we could get a working system (likely SpaceX) up and running much faster because we had to.

    I am going to leave my part of this conversation at an end. I’ll happily read your responses to these points, and please don’t take my silence from here on as an insult. It’s clear we differ in our views, and that is fine. But I think I’ve covered my stance as well as I can. I thank you for clearing up some things that I did not understand from your article at first, and I now see your view on this. Your points are valid, but in the end we have very different views on whether it is ok to continue using a Russian built engine for national security launches. I do not, and that is not going to change.

  31. David,
    I don’t think I’m going to try and rebut any of your points, as it’s pretty clear that we’re starting from very different relative priorities, and I think we’ve both made our cases. Apologies if I didn’t do always do a very good job of disagreeing without being disagreeable.

    ~Jon

  32. Dave Huntsman says:

    ULA should not be allowed to kill off Delta with one hand, and then beg for an extension with the other.

    I do agree with you on that point, David. They want to kill off D-IV while insisting that they should continue to receive the subsidy. They’ll also then insist that Atlas should be chosen for at least some of the competitions – in spite of a much higher price – to maintain its viability.

    They are trying to spend their own money to solve this problem, but you’re supporting Congress in being an active roadblock to that goal.

    Actually, John, LockMart and Boeing have made clear they won’t invest any money in the effort, period; they’ll only allow ULA to re-invest it’s large profit/subsidy, etc., from operations to fund it – and only then if the government goes along and allows ULA to continue dependence on Russia for its main launch vehicle. They are trying to hold the government hostage to that decision. I think McCain sees that, and doesn’t like it, and doesn’t know of any other way to get their attention.

    Right now, Boeing and LockMart are trying to have it all; and refusing to do anything – in spite of years of warning – unless someone else pays for it. Rather than let the contractor tail wag the government dog, the government should both level and playing field and, force the parents to grow a pair and invest by doing something like the following:
    Allow import of Putin’s engines and use even for national security payloads – with no limit on amount – on the condition that:
    1. The ELC subsidy ends; as in, goes to zero. (I wish this could be made retroactive to the bulk buy, but it probably can’t; therefore, they continue to rake it big profits these next couple of years).
    2. There be honest, straight-up competition between SpaceX and ULA – with all risks and costs considered. This means ULA will be saddled with a higher-risk factor for using Putin’s engines; and that if all other things being equal, they bid a higher price for each launch, they’ll probably lose. No talk about having to throw ULA ‘wins’ to keep its line open; because they were the ones who created the situation by closing the Delta line. Only under that condition should the Delta line be closed.
    3. If LockMart/Boeing don’t agree to that scenario – a scenario that would essentially require them to invest some skin in the game themselves – then the subsidy should still end, and the government should force them to keep Delta-IV open as a price for using the riskier Putin engines.

    There is a chance, if we insist that the parents get serious about this rocket business (which they haven’t been, for years), that they might indeed decide to get out of the business after the block buy et al is completed. If so, let’s find that out now.

  33. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Dave H,
    I do agree with you on that point, David. They want to kill off D-IV while insisting that they should continue to receive the subsidy.

    I was under the impression that Tory Bruno was on the record as saying he expected the ELC subsidy to go away. They’re trying to kill off Delta so they can survive without that subsidy, because it was clear that now that SpaceX is about to be certified that they couldn’t keep asking for that subsidy long-term.

    Actually, John, LockMart and Boeing have made clear they won’t invest any money in the effort, period; they’ll only allow ULA to re-invest it’s large profit/subsidy, etc., from operations to fund it – and only then if the government goes along and allows ULA to continue dependence on Russia for its main launch vehicle.

    That’s what I meant by ULA spending its own money–by reinvesting profits from launch operations (kind of how Masten finances its future vehicle developments, or how Elon finances most of his future developments). And they are actively letting contracts related to Vulcan, even without the certainty that they’re asking for on the RD-180 extension. Their parent companies just won’t commit more than on a quarter-to-quarter basis with that hanging over their heads.

    As far as ELC, I 100% agree with you that it should go away as soon as possible. Under the block buy if there’s a way, or as soon as the block buy is over, if there isn’t a way to do it sooner. The ELC only makes sense if they’re using it to keep Delta-IV alive. If they’re retiring Delta-IV, the ELC should end, immediately. And I agree that the competition should be a fair one with all risks factored in (including SpaceX’s much shorter track record on the one hand and Russian engine availability on the other).

    I actually don’t think ULA, Boeing, or LM would disagree with that, as much as you seem to think.

    ~Jon

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