Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Atlas Launch Alliance

After over a year of deliberations, the Federal Trade Commission has finally approved the United Launch Alliance, placing the Delta IV and Atlas V under the same roof. While there may be near-term benefits to the deal, ULA strikes me as a means of mitigating failure rather than producing success.

The cost savings associated with ULA will primarily be associated with eliminating redundant facilities and management. Hence, Atlas V and Delta IV will both be built at Boeing's plant in Decatur, AL while LockMart's Colorado manufacturing facilities will likely close down. LockMart's leased An-124 will likely have its lease terminated, as the Atlas V can go on Boeing's barge. Yet this near-term savings will actually hinder the EELV program in the future if the market for EELV-type rockets suddenly lifts off.

Presentations by Boeing would indicate that the Decatur plant is capable of producing ~15 booster cores per year. This is more than sufficient to meet current DoD and NASA needs. But what if NASA needed more EELV's to support the space station and lunar missions? What if Bob Bigelow needed a dozen or more EELV's per year to support his space stations? The future commercial market predicted in 1996 (when EELV was authorized) had evaporated by 2002 when the EELV's first flew, destroying the business case for keeping both rockets in production. But what if this market were to suddenly come back? ULA is a sign that LockMart and Boeing weren't anticipating future prosperity.

If ULA goes ahead, the Delta IV will likely end production within two or three years. Delta IV is viewed as being less reliable, probably because it has flown fewer times than Atlas V (last fall's labor strike certainly didn't help.) At the time Delta IV production ends, ULA will be left with the tooling to make the rocket's 5-meter diameter tankage. It just so happens that Lockheed Martin has been pushing for a 5.4-meter version of the Atlas V (Phase 1&2 in the company's parlance.) If ULA were to scale the Atlas growth variants back to 5 meters in diameter and adopt Delta IV's launch facilities (including the horizontal integration and transport,) it would be a wise use of the leftover assets. Nevertheless, ULA will only be capable of producing 15 booster cores per year.

In my vision for the United Launch Alliance, the venture would actually become the "Atlas Launch Alliance." There wouldn't be any production cost savings, and both plants would be working at full potential. The Colorado plant would work at full capacity producing standard Atlas V's. The Decatur plant would switch over to a hypothesized 5-meter Atlas which would replace the Delta IV Heavy and the Ares I.

The difference between the real ULA and my "Atlas Launch Alliance" is one of vision. The Boeing-LockMart vision is that the market will stay stagnant, and there is currently excess capacity. My vision (similar to the vision of SpaceX) is that the market will expand dramatically over the next decade, and that current capacity may not be enough to meet it. While SpaceX believes that ULA is harmful to their case for the Falcon IX, I would argue that ULA puts Boeing and LockMart into a corner. If SpaceX has a success with the Dragon spacecraft, it will be easier for SpaceX to build sufficient production facilities from the ground up. ULA will be stuck with the Decatur plant and will be forced to rebuild what they gave up in Colorado.