As expected the U.S. Air Force recently announced the end of the ULA (United Launch Alliance) monopoly on putting government payloads into space. In the future all launched of satellites and transport vehicles will be open to bid by ULA and SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation), and eventually also Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin. The air force expects to select two of these companies for each multi-launch contract (“block buys”) in which the firm with the best price and track record will thrive while the other three scramble for second place. There are a variety of launch rocket configurations required for the many types of payloads to be lifted into several different types of orbits. This provides plenty of opportunities for the four companies to concentrate on some types of payload/orbit combinations and offer the most attractive prices and reliability. There may eventually be more than four
Since 2006, when it was created, ULA has launched about ten rockets a year. ULA uses two launcher designs that were originally designed for military purposes and later adapted as satellite launchers. The Atlas 5 is a 334 ton rocket that can (depending on model) put 29 tons into low orbit and 13 tons into the much higher GTO orbit. One potential problem here is that Atlas 5 is dependent on Russian RD-180 rocket motors. The Delta 4 can weigh up to 733 tons and put 22 tons into low orbit and 13 tons into GTO orbit. The Delta 4 uses American-made engines.
Previously, given the lack of competitors for this business, the ULA made sense. But ULA received cash advances and other government financing assistance that made it even more difficult for a new firm to provide competition. Despite that advantage, the ULA monopoly was eventually threatened by SpaceX, a private company that had its first successful commercial launch in 2013. SpaceX also demonstrated the successful operation of a booster rocket that can return and land under its own power. This cuts the cost of putting anything into orbit and is a major breakthrough in launcher technology. No one else was developing these new technologies
The SpaceX tech was impressive and in 2012 SpaceX obtained its first contract to launch U.S. military cargo into space. SpaceX had earlier obtained a NASA contract which included 12 deliveries to the ISS (International Space Station) at $134 million each. What makes all this so noteworthy is that SpaceX developed its own launch rockets without any government help. SpaceX also developed the Dragon space vehicle for delivering personnel and supplies to the International Space Station.
SpaceX has since proved that its rockets work and is proving that the SpaceX rockets can do the job cheaper. The ULA gets a billion dollar a year subsidy from the government that SpaceX does not require. SpaceX still had to get all the paperwork and approvals done so that they can handle classified missions. SpaceX did not see this as a problem; it’s only a matter of time before they satisfy all the bureaucrats and regulations. The fact that ULA was getting government financing and subsidies for its launched came under Congressional pressure because SpaceX was offering superior launch services for a lower price by using new tech, and there was no reason to subsidize ULA and their older and more expensive tech.
While waiting for the air force to decide, SpaceX put its new technology to use. In September 2014 SpaceX put its second AsiaSat communications satellite into high (geosynchronous transfer) stationary orbit over East Asia. The five ton AsiaSat 6 is designed to last a minimum of 15 years. The AsiaSat birds broadcast video and more of them are going up until they can deliver video to all of East Asia.
In 2016 the U.S. Air Force agreed to pay SpaceX $83 million to launch a new GPS satellite. That price was 40 percent lower than what ULA charged and it was understood that if SpaceX succeeded (as they did) they would get more such work as the air force is putting over a dozen more new GPS satellites into orbit. In response ULA scrambled to cut costs, innovate and become competitive, but SpaceX went from success to success and it seemed inevitable that the ULA near-monopoly was going away and now it has. Lockheed and Boeing have dominated U.S. space launches for over half a century. From the beginning space vehicles were designed by government organizations and construction was subcontracted to aviation firms, turning these companies into “aerospace” companies. It was believed that no private company could break into this business without an invitation and assistance from the government. SpaceX was founded in 2002 to prove that private enterprise could do a better job and, as has happened so many times in the past, this worked.
So far SpaceX has developed three launchers. The Falcon 1 was a developmental model, used mainly for testing and was first launched in 2006. Two of its five launches were a success and the model is now retired.
The Falcon 9 is a 333 ton launcher that can lift ten tons into orbit and is competitive with the older (government developed) Delta 4 and the Atlas 5 launchers. Falcon 9 first launched in 2010, and entered service in 2012. The Falcon Heavy is a 1,462 ton rocket that can lift 53 tons into low orbit and 21 tons into GTO orbit. Falcon Heavy is a development of the Falcon 9 and launched for the first time in 2016. Since then there have been two more launches. Many of the Falcon Heavy booster rockets return and land intact under their own power and are refurbished for reuse.
SpaceX offers lower prices, even without the self-landing booster, and more flexibility than most government (usually military) developed launchers. As a privately owned company, SpaceX has less bureaucracy and is quicker to adapt new technology for launch services. Many existing and potential SpaceX customers see this as the future of space transportation.
While the Delta 4 and Atlas V have a proven record of reliability, SpaceX offers competition and that usually means the development of better and cheaper technology. Lockheed Martin and Boeing have lots of friends in Congress but that was not enough to maintain government launch services an expensive ULA monopoly. That process was aided by videos of the SpaceX booster rockets returning and landing. This appealed to an old science fiction standby, with rockets taking off and landing using their rockets. That was long known to be possible but none of the firms, most of them government controlled, that built rockets bothered to pursue the idea and make it work. SpaceX did and that was a convincing reason to allow SpaceX to compete for launch business. The commercial business was already going to SpaceX when the air force agreed that SpaceX was a superior, and less expensive, technology.
With the acceptance of SpaceX and elimination of the ULA monopoly, there are several other new firms seeking to emulate SpaceX and this is likely to put more new technologies into use.