Space News starts out this article by pointing out that rumors of an impending sale of United Launch Alliance are reaching a crescendo, so I think that's a good thing to keep in mind as you digest this story, based on a presentation CEO Tory Bruno made for ULA at a January 31 SpaceCom conference in Orlando. In light of some of the things he talked about, it does come across as trying to capture some glory for the company. And maybe goose the price up a little.
Speaking about the much delayed first test flight of the Vulcan Centaur, he said it went exceptionally well, with no issues reported during the countdown or after liftoff.
“That was a perfect mission,” he said of the launch, which placed Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander on a highly elliptical lunar transfer orbit. “Dead nominal flight throughout, and a bullseye insertion in the end.”
That was in contrast with the reputation first launches of new vehicles have, which historically have high failure rates. “I’ve done about three dozen first launches, and generally one of two things happen: either it blows up or it has significant anomalies in flight,” he said. “I have never seen as clean a first launch” as Vulcan.
One of the topics he seems to have spent some time on was their development process.
“You can fly, fail, fix; nothing wrong with it,” he said. ULA instead took a “rigorous design process: have your failures in ground tests, have them in the computer, have them in the sim lab and have them on paper. That’s how this was done and my guys just did an outstanding job.”
While this can be taken as a mild shot at SpaceX, I think most would agree that it's undoubtedly cheaper to find an error in a simulation than to find it by blowing up a rocket. Experience shows, though, that simulation isn't always "plug and chug" straightforward. It depends on not only exactly how good the model is that the engineers create to analyze, but how good the simulation programs are. This is a complex thing to try to summarize, but simulations are not infallible. Consider the explosion of the Centaur stage last year; that had passed all the simulations.
It's easier to believe a test flight than a simulation, recognizing that a flight tests one set of conditions and a simulation can test more than one. There are situations that are mathematically impossible to derive closed-form solutions for and situations where interactions between the huge number of things being simulated lead to unpredictable combinations.
I suppose it's unavoidable that he also spent some time patting himself and the rest of leadership on their backs.
Another factor, he argued, was a transformation of the company he led after joining the company in 2014. He described the company then as one in crisis, having lost access to Russian-built RD-180 engines used by the Atlas 5 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea as well as competition from SpaceX, which sued the U.S. Air Force to gain access to national security launches that ULA then held a monopoly on.
“A business in that situation might go broke. In fact, most of them do,” Bruno said. He undertook several measures to turn the company around, from reducing costs and changing the company’s product line to more commercial approaches and accepting it will have to compete. “The plan was we were going to shrink and become competitive and then we’re going to grow.”
As we've talked about before, ULA was formed as a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin in 2006. The reports are that both companies are considering selling it. The two names that seem to be at the top of rumor pile are Blue Origin and the private equity fund Cerberus Capital Management. Blue Origin, of course, is developing a competitor to Vulcan, the New Glenn, but they also sell their BE-4 engines to ULA. Vulcan is shaping up to be a valuable platform, and their winning portion of National Security launches is an asset for potential buyers to consider. Bruno stresses that Vulcan can achieve "high energy" orbits that no one else can - yet.
“When Atlas flies out in about a year, this will be the only high-energy rocket left in the world,” he said, serving “the most critical and important missions, unique missions, for national security.”
That approach, he said, was proven with the NSSL Phase 2 contracts. “There’s a lot of high-energy missions in there and we designed for that,” he said, such as missions that involve direct injection of payloads into geostationary orbit, which he said will be a growing share of both Phase 2 and the upcoming Phase 3 contracts.
“We run about 34% cheaper on a high-energy mission than the other one, SpaceX, does,” he argued. “We put all our bets nine years ago in the right places.”
In addition to those NSSL Phase 2 launches for the government, they also have the Kuiper constellation launches for Amazon - 38 of the booked 70 Vulcan launches are for the private sector.
ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno discussed the transformation of his company in a Jan. 31 speech at SpaceCom. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust