ULA: Launch services customers class reliability as their main consideration

by Chris Bergin

The ever-competitive launch services market has once again been thrown into the spotlight, with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk promoting the low cost of his vehicles, claiming Arianespace’s Ariane 5 has “no chance” of competing with his Falcon rockets on price. However, another big player in the market – the United Launch Alliance (ULA) – believe customers are more interested in reliability.

Who To Launch With:

Customers wishing to launch their payloads into orbit have several options to choose from, with companies based around the world, sometimes with several launch vehicle options available to cater for their spacecraft.

Arianespace currently have three vehicles on their books, with the Vega the latest rocket to enter the market, enabling small spacecraft to be launched from their base at the European Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Arianespace also added the Soyuz launch vehicle to their roster, becoming the stable mate of their flagship Ariane 5 rocket.

The company currently rely on their Ariane 5 ECA (Cryogenic Evolution type A), the most powerful version in the Ariane 5 range, which successfully lofted its dual payload of the Star One C3 and Eutelsat21B/W6A telecommunication satellites – weighing in at a combined 9.6 tonnes – into Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) this month.

The launch represented the 210th mission of an Ariane family launcher since the maiden liftoff of an Ariane 1 version in 1979. The launch was also the 66th Ariane 5 liftoff, the 51st success in a row, as Arianespace hold claim to being the top launch services company on the planet, with an order book full to the brim.

Looking to the future, the Ariane 5 ME (Mid-life Evolution) is currently classed as in development for flight in 2016-2017, sporting a new Upper Stage with an increased propellant volume, powered by the Vinci expander cycle engine that – unlike the ECA’s HM7B engine – can restart up to five times, allowing for direct GEO insertion.

However, Arianespace may opt to push forward with the Ariane 6 – more suited to larger satellites and cheaper production costs – to cater for their target market in the years to come.

This subject is on the agenda for ministers from the European Space Agency’s 20 member states at their meeting in Naples this month.

The main question is whether to advance straight to the Ariane 6, or continue on the path of upgrading to the Ariane 5 ME. ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain has previously mentioned the need for Ariane 6 by directly referencing competitors in India, China – and in the US, namely SpaceX.

It is possible Mr Dordian’s naming of SpaceX as a direct competitor caused Mr Musk to comment on Arianespace’s current flagship, Ariane 5 – during an interview with the BBC’s Jonathan Amos – noting that a failure to evolve the European workhorse would only lead to his Falcon rockets dominating over the Ariane.

“Ariane 5 has no chance. I don’t say that with a sense of bravado but there’s really no way for that vehicle to compete with Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy,” noted Mr Musk, who was in London to speak at the Royal Aeronautical Society where he was being honored for his role in commercial space.

“If I were in the position of Ariane, I would really push for an Ariane 6.”

Mr Musk is understandably buoyant about his company’s future in the market, with an order book that is filling up at an extraordinary pace for such a relatively young company, in addition to the upcoming debut of Falcon 9’s big brother, the Falcon Heavy – which will be the most powerful launch vehicle on the planet when it makes its first ride uphill.

One of the keys to Mr Musk’s comment is the pricing of the services provided, with SpaceX entering – and claiming to being able to sustain – a much cheaper cost to the customer than all of its main competitors, both domestic and overseas, such as Arianespace.

“Not only can we sustain the prices, but the next version of Falcon 9 is actually able to go to a lower price,” added Mr Musk during the BBC interview. “So if Ariane can’t compete with the current Falcon 9, it sure as hell can’t compete with the next one.”

However, low costs aren’t everything, as pointed out by Dr George Sowers, ULA VP for Human Launch Services, who was speaking prior to Mr Musk’s interview, when asked about how ULA compete on price.

“The short and direct answer is that ULA has, and will continue, to compete on total value to include price. We have gone head to head with SpaceX on several occasions and have won the majority,” Dr Sowers said to NASASpaceFlight.com in August.

“In the launch business, price is never the sole consideration for the buyer. That’s because launch price is a small percentage of the total program value (which can exceed replacement cost when there’s no money to replace, like the Glory spacecraft).”

ULA operate the Delta IV and the Atlas V – the latter sporting what the company proclaims to be a 100 percent track record since its 2002 debut.

Falcon 9 has only launched four times, with some dicey moments during its short history, most notably with the CRS-1 Dragon launch last month – although all four launches have resulted in primary mission success.

The Atlas V is currently used by NASA and the Department of Defense (DOD) for critical space missions to launch highly expensive payloads into orbit – as seen with the successes with the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and NASA’s Juno probe.

Notably, SpaceX and ULA have a “competitive” history in the national security payload arena, namely the contracts associated with the US Government-sponsored Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.

“In ULA’s market of national security payloads and unique science probes, capability, schedule assurance and reliability often overwhelm any other consideration. As a citizen and taxpayer, I think that’s appropriate,” added Dr Sowers.

“Not to minimize SpaceX’s impressive achievements, but ULA’s customers want to see a track record of success, repeatably delivering complex payloads to orbit, safely and on time.”

Atlas V – like Falcon 9 – is now walking down the path of proving it can be entrusted with launching humans into orbit, with both vehicles facing off in NASA’s commercial crew development program competition. The two launch vehicles are the last rockets standing, as the process moved into the Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCAP) stage.

SpaceX are hoping their Falcon 9 will launch NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) via a crew-capable version of their Dragon spacecraft, while ULA’s Atlas V has both the Boeing CST-100 and SNC’s Dream Chaser under its wing.

(Images: ULA, SpaceX, Arianespace, BBC, SNC and L2).

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