Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Is the Sale of United Launch Alliance Imminent?

Ultimately a sale isn't imminent because regardless of the management's decisions the sale has to be approved by the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice, which will probably introduce glacial delays, but Eric Berger at Ars Technica has a piece up today that says two sources have told him Boeing and Lockheed Martin are "close to selecting a buyer for United Launch Alliance."  

The jointly owned rocket company, which was founded in 2006 and for a time had a monopoly on US government launch contracts, has been up for sale most of this year.

The sources say three buyers have emerged for the Colorado-based launch company. These include a private equity fund, the Jeff Bezos-owned space company Blue Origin, and a well-capitalized aerospace firm that is interested in increasing its space portfolio.

The possibility of it being a private equity firm isn't surprising, nor is it unprecedented.  The term "private equity" firm doesn't necessarily mean a Black Rock or other big name like that, although Ars doesn't mention the name of the firm.  Typically, they buy the company, help finance the launch company's restructuring, and then resell it.  

The surprise, if there is one, is that Blue Origin is among the three possible buyers. Berger looks at it a bit differently than I do because of having been more closely plugged into the right sources.

Blue Origin is also not a great surprise. The space company owned by Jeff Bezos has been rumored to be among the potential buyers for a while. Although there is some overlap between their launch plans, acquiring United Launch Alliance would give Bezos an orbital rocket and the guaranteed government contracts he covets. It would also benefit Amazon's need to launch its Project Kuiper satellites.

Ars is not naming the third company saying they were unable to verify the information from the inside sources.  ULA themselves deferred any questions about this to the two companies that own the joint venture, Lockheed and Boeing.  Who steadfastly refused to say anything.  

The ULA merger was formed by pushing from US security agencies in 2006, and that was to ensure a steady supply of Delta and Atlas launch vehicles for government payloads.  With guaranteed military launch contracts and large annual subsidies from the US Department of Defense to maintain "launch readiness," essentially subsidies for being there, they've always been a profit maker for both halves of the Alliance.

If any company is the embodiment of "old space" or "Space 1.0," though, it's ULA.  And as anyone who watches the shear number of launches climbing steadily over the last few years will tell you. Space 2.0 is on the verge of "eating their lunch."

In recent years, ULA's launch dominance has first been challenged and then supplanted by the rise of SpaceX and its less expensive and highly reliable Falcon 9 rocket. Bruno, who became ULA's chief executive in 2016, has slashed employee headcount and taken other steps to control costs, such as closing infrequently used launch pads.

However, Bruno's most important initiative has been the development of the large Vulcan rocket, which is intended to be more cost-competitive with the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles while also ending ULA's dependence on Russian-made rocket engines. The Vulcan launcher uses the BE-4 rocket engine manufactured by Blue Origin.

Their approach to reusability echoes the European Space Agencies in essentially saying "why spend that much money to develop a reusable booster?" Instead, they've talked about ejecting the engines out of a booster and recovering those - they're the most expensive part of the booster, after all.  

They think they can recover the engines using their “SMART (Sensible Modular, Autonomous Return Technology) Reuse” approach and get 2/3 of the benefit of landing the booster for much less developmental budget.

Of course, they're not going to do that now.  That's in a few years, after Vulcan is flying reliably and they get around to trying to get engine recovery to work.

Vulcan rolling into the launch complex for testing earlier this year.  Image credit: United Launch Alliance.

As we've talked about a few times, the first launch of Vulcan Centaur is currently set for NET Christmas Eve, now just under six weeks out.  Speculation is that if they agree to a sale, it probably doesn't have to wait until after that flight for ULA to announce it, although such an announcement would put a nice exclamation point on a successful flight.


  1. Bezos. It's the only way to catch Elon. And acquisition is his M.O.

  2. Ah, ULA, couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of avaricious grifters.

    And Bezos buying them? Bwhahahahaha, that would put them farther behind.

    Frig it. Let Sierra Nevada buy the company at 10 cents on the dollar, because if Vulcan doesn't work, it's (ULA) is a dead company.

    Gee, they knew for over a decade that the Delta and Atlas were eventually going to reach end-of-program, and had the opportunity to create newer, better, faster, bigger rockets when they had the cash flow. But, no, they, being the grifters full of avarice, just sat back and kept a bloated, over-staffed company firmly in the 1980s, instead of becoming a lean, innovative company striving to improve for the future.


    I know people who work and worked at ULA. Very good at saying "No" to any concept of innovation. I'm really surprised ULA actually built Vulcan.

    1. its most likely due to losing access to Russian engines than anything, sounds dumb to say it, no engines no launches, smoke as that.
      I love the story how US 1.0 rocket engineers, even seeing it with their own eyes, could hardly accept the performance values of Russian engines they went over to scope out and set up an engine LTA.

      Its so crazy seeming its at the level of fantasy, but there are rumors of a totally new, unprecedented technology group, with tech thats beyond anything we have seen short of say very well written hard sci-fi storys.
      Maybe this us the secret interests? Because one oart of the rumor is they are working to bring their tech to humanity, and doing so thru the involvement if some current established aerospace industry, bringing a total conversion using almost inconcievable before now engineering. The idea is these companies have staff and tech cadre already working, why not set them up with the advanced tech so to hit the ground running.

      It appears very few know about this advent, plus their working against the long established true powers who control the world, a global domination cabal per say, namely the so called "Rothchillians", and their associates who make up the interests if the Jesuits, Five Star Generals and outfits like BlackRock and their secret military companies, they supposedly are bery much into inhibiting any new advanced technology except what they use for themselves, because to these people control of technology is control of the world.

      These new tech folks are carefully nabigating this quagmire of global domination interests, while these interests are at levels of suppression of any news or knowledge getting out employing every asset and resource of power and control they possess, to stop the free dissimination of advanced clean tech for humanity.
      And Space X is definately not part of this new effort.

    2. That might suffice for Atlas, but Delta was 100% US designed and made.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. It would be delicious if Bozos bought it. Then he could complain to himself about his late engines.

    Or was the delay a ploy to put ULA out of business so he could buy it? I wouldn't put it past him at all.

    1. Yeah right there, take it another step; Corporate/Crony Delay Delay Delay Games. Its business as usual. Along with it appears the free money gravy train is getting close to ending as the governments of the world get to the point they can no longer leverage fiat that they have been instrumental in strip mining of every erg of wealth.
      It all ends when that bill comes due. Sometimes I think its one reason why SpaceX was formed. There is just something not right with this saturation level of sats covering every inch if planet eartg. To quote Patrick Henry, its either "I smell a rat", or "This beautiful butterfly with poison under its wings". And since when have we the people seen tangible benefits, commiserate with the ungodly amounts of our wealth gone down the black hole of the aerospace/MIC?
      I really mean that. After early NASA not the Not A Space Agency NASA that has converged government controlled space activity, not since the early space race up to the shuttle, do we see or find that tech coming into the public like it did in the 60's-90's. Its all pretty much dried up. I mean that was incredible how all NASA invented tech was free for the entire world to use. Thats no more far as I see.