[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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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!