ULA concedes GPS competition to SpaceX

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The competition cools down: ULA has decided against bidding on a military GPS launch contract, leaving the field clear for SpaceX.

ULA, which for the past decade has launched nearly every U.S. national security satellite, said Nov. 16 it did not submit a bid to launch a GPS 3 satellite for the Air Force in 2018 in part because it does not expect to have an Atlas 5 rocket available for the mission. ULA has been pushing for relief from legislation Congress passed roughly a year ago requiring the Air Force to phase out its use of the Russian-made RD-180 engine that powers ULA’s workhorse Atlas 5 rocket.

This decision might be a lobbying effort by ULA to force Congress to give them additional waivers on using the Atlas 5 engine. Or it could be that they realize that they wouldn’t be able to match SpaceX’s price, and decided it was pointless wasting time and money putting together a bid. Either way, the decision suggests that ULA is definitely challenged in its competition with SpaceX, and until it gets a new lower cost rocket that is not dependent on Russian engines, its ability to compete in the launch market will be seriously hampered.


  • Tom Billings

    The clear perception that this day was coming to ULA is why its Board brought in Tony Bruno. No amount of lobbying could save them from the coming hiatus in military space launch revenues. They must emphasize building their new rocket over the lobbying that brought them so much in the past. Tony was and is their great hope for competing with SpaceX, rather than talking to Senators.

  • mkent

    I think you’re right on both of your initial points. I think ULA conceded this launch internally quite some time ago and are using it to lobby not only for more RD-180 engines but also for better contract terms in future proposals. I hope they win.

    The terms of this solicitation make it seem like almost a set-aside for SpaceX. That’s not a bad thing from a taxpayer’s perspective. SpaceX is certainly higher risk than ULA, but they’re also considerably less expensive. With the GPS constellation currently healthy (30 available satellites vs. a requirement for only 24) and with — by the time the GPS IIIA-4 satellite launches — an assembly line kicking out a new satellite every few months, the Air Force can afford to take a chance with a new provider to save on launch costs. In fact, it’s the perfect time to do so.

    But for the expensive NRO birds — which are said to cost as much as an aircraft carrier — it makes no sense to go with a low-cost provider at the expense of reliability. Those solicitations should be Best Value, not LPTA, and ULA is right to press for that. The result for the Air Force will be a high / low split, with ULA taking the expensive missions where reliability is king and SpaceX taking the less expensive missions where it is not.

    Long term, SpaceX will move up the value chain and gain ever-increasing capability and ULA will reduce their costs. If the Air Force plays their cards right they’ll end up with two providers that are both low-cost and high-capability.

    That’ll be a good thing.

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