Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Rumor: United Launch Alliance is for Sale

Granted it's only a "sources say" rumor, but it's an interesting report that surfaced today on Ars Technica.  

The potential sale has not been disclosed publicly, but three sources confirmed to Ars that potential buyers have been contacted about the opportunity. These sources said a deal is expected to be closed before the end of this year and that investment firm Morgan Stanley and consulting firm Bain & Company are managing the transaction.

ULA is a nearly two decade long merger of Lockheed Martin and Boeing formed in 2005 and driven by the US  The purpose of the deal was to ensure that NASA, US DOD and intelligence services had continuous access to Delta and Atlas launch vehicles.  The merger was profitable for both companies; ULA had zero competition and literally had access to the government's infinite checkbook if they just didn't lose too many payloads. 

In return for 100 percent mission success, ULA received large launch contracts and an approximately $1 billion annual subsidy from the US Department of Defense to maintain "launch readiness."

Both companies issued statements essentially refusing the confirm or deny the story - which is bog standard in this sort of situation.   

And then came SpaceX. 

The emergence of SpaceX in the early 2010s with the increasingly reliable Falcon 9 rocket started to disrupt this profitable arrangement. SpaceX sold the Falcon 9 rocket at a substantial discount to ULA's Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. The company also successfully sued the US government to allow the Falcon 9 rocket to compete for national security missions, and SpaceX launched its first one in 2017.

The Falcon 9 is the world's most reliable rocket and the one with more launches to its name than anything flying, but its payload isn't in the class of ULA's Atlas V or Delta IV.  That changed when Falcon Heavy made its debut in 2018, famously sending Elon Musk's personal Tesla to fly by Mars.  The two Falcon Heavy launches in the last few months, January '23 and November '22, were national security missions.  

In terms of launch cadence, there's really no comparison.  

In recent years, SpaceX has come to dominate United Launch Alliance in terms of cadence. By the end of 2022, the upstart was launching as many rockets each month as ULA launched during a calendar year. During the last four years, in fact, SpaceX has landed more rockets than ULA has launched during its existence. [Italics added: SiG]

While I find it interesting to speculate, it's probably meaningless to try to place bets on who ends up taking over ULA (unless you plan to buy stock).  Either Boeing or Lockheed Martin could buy out the other partner and make it sole ownership on their own parts, but it's possible that another launch company could buy them.   Since Amazon has contracted with ULA to launch its constellation of Kuiper internet satellites, they could be interested in acquiring full control of getting their satellites into orbit.  Blue Origin also won a share of Kuiper launches on New Glenn, which (of course) still hasn't flown, yet.  A point they might consider an advantage is selling themselves the BE-4 engines for the Vulcan rockets at cost, potentially reducing the price to orbit they would charge customers.  Don't forget companies like Northrup Grumman whose Cygnus cargo capsules complement SpaceX's Cargo Dragons in supplying the Space Station.  They're needing to find a new way to get Cygnus to orbit since their Antares booster needs to be updated (same reason as the Atlas V: Antares uses Russian engines).

ULA CEO Tory Bruno (l) and Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos pose with a miniature model of the BE-4.  Win McNamee/Getty Images from 2014.  



  1. IF true, it's the first domino to fall, courtesy of SpaceX.

    Others would not be too far behind, I'd speculate. SpaceX's advantage is just getting bigger and bigger. With Starship, it will only get worse - the pressure on the other companies, that is!

  2. I wouldn't buy it if I had the money. Especially since Vulcan, their big new thing, really the only thing they have going for them, is reliant on those BE4 engines that one had a 5% variance, and variances are very bad.

    Yeah. No.

    Let it live or die.

  3. Interesting. I am out of touch (completely) with this particular industry: has their already been a consolidation based on results and ability to finance, or is this the beginning of that?

    1. Purely a guess on my part, but I think it's more like the beginning of the consolidation. There has been talk about a shake up coming in the small sat launch business for at least a year. This is the opposite end - the huge sat launch business.

    2. Methinks SpaceX will have the large/huge sat business sown up once Starship becomes viable - and they WILL make it work. 100+ metric tons to orbit is making DoD and others drool !

    3. Just think of the calculated price of $35/kg to orbit for Starship. That’s 0.7% of the ride share missions on Falcon 9 which is already pretty good. Bit of a game changer, do you think?

    4. The price change is so radical that making satellites out of shipping containers could be a thing. Seriously, a 10' or 20' Conex container, covered in solar panels and antennae, the insides easily accessible by future astronauts to work on interior things by opening the damned doors. Crazy.

      A 20' Conex space telescope. Easily have a 7' to 7.5' mirror on the back end.

      That's how crazy the price per kilogram and the volume capability of Starship is.

      And when I'm referring to the conex containers, I'm talking about a standard shipping container, not one made from space-rated materials carefully hand fettled by technicians. Okay, maybe a clean(er) room version, but still, made out of steel with thick (thick in comparison to standard space construction) walls and lots of rigidity and stability.

      Even the little corner Conux connectors (or a space-rated version) would allow a conglomeration of space conuxes to be assembled relatively easily.

      That's how crazy things could easily get.

    5. Mount a mirror on a conex container? You ain't never had to work with the scientists on any telescope, eh? The cleanliness requirements they impose would water your eyes!

    6. Thus the statement "Okay, maybe a clean room version, but still, made out of steel with thick..." What I was trying to say was the need for ultra-light and minimalistic sizing and lack of redundancy on certain things is past once Starship becomes commercially available.

      And there is a way of boiling off volatiles and particles that sounds insane but won't be. Take your aerospace conex up empty, toss it out, open it up, let space boil all the gasses and liquids out thanks to Mother Sun heating it up and then pick it up in a couple orbits.

      I mean, stupid ideas that sound stupid but aren't are now technically feasible.