COLORADO SPRINGS – United Launch Alliance (ULA) says the per-unit cost of its Atlas V 401 – the launcher roughly equivalent in lift capability to ’ (SpaceX) Falcon 9 v1.1 bursting into the market – costs $164 million apiece under a newly inked agreement with the U.S. Air Force.
ULA CEO Mike Gass shared the figure for the first time in a May 19 press roundtable at the 30th National Space Symposium here in response to unrelenting criticism from rival SpaceX that ULA’s launches cost far too much for the taxpayer. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has cited a per-unit cost for the– the Atlas V and Delta IV launchers operated by ULA – of $460 million.
Gass bristles at this figure. He says that number came from a rudimentary look at the annual budget line for EELV divided by the number of launches, but that budget line encompasses sweeping launch costs, including certification funding for SpaceX. And, he says, it is not an accurate "apples-to-apples" cost to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 v1.1.
SpaceX advertises a $100 million-per-launch price for the Falcon 9 v1.1, including satisfying $30 million for an added layer of government oversight not included in its commercial launch pricing.
SpaceX is in the process of getting certified to compete against ULA – currently a monopoly – for some national security launches. Air Force Lt. Gen. C.R. Davis, military deputy to the service procurement chief, says SpaceX is expected to be certified in March; the company slapped the Air Force with a lawsuit April 28 claiming the issuance of a $1 billion contract to ULA for at least 36 cores worth of work – 28 EELV launches – was anticompetitive. "SpaceX is trying to change the rules for themselves even though it may not be in the best interests of the taxpayer," Gass said about the company’s hurry to get certified.
SpaceX, Gass says, has an "overcommitted manifest," adding that it is time for the company "to prove its technology [and] match its rhetoric with performance."
At issue in the lawsuit is whether it was lawful for the Air Force to guarantee ULA 36 cores worth of launches (28 missions as Delta IV uses three cores) during a period of time when SpaceX could be eligible to compete for the work. Industry sources say the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s staff disagrees with the Air Force’s contract language guaranteeing at least 36 cores; Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall approved the contract for up to 36 cores. The Air Force, however, took the risk of guaranteeing the work to get the most possible savings. Davis says the deal was a good one for taxpayers, for that reason.
ULA’s Delta IV Heavy launcher, a booster with three cores used to loft the largest classified satellites into orbit, costs roughly $350 million apiece, Gass says. The Delta IV is the nation’s sole heavy lifter.
Across the 36-core buy, the average launch cost including all different EELV configurations planned is roughly $225 million, Gass said. The prices he cited at the press roundtable were representative of the agreed-to cost in a fixed-price, incentive fee deal definitized in December.
Though the deal includes a guarantee of the Air Force buying 36 cores – 20 Delta IV and 16 Atlas V – the pricing holds for orders up to 50. Above the 36 guaranteed in the contract, the next Atlas V 401 would cost less than $100 million, Gass says.
ULA is battling to keep its Atlas V alive amid multiple attacks. Due to tensions over the Crimean annexation, Russia has said it will halt deliveries of the RD-180 first-stage engine for Atlas V to the U.S.; this would leave ULA with a current stockpile of 16 already in the U.S. Political pressure from the SpaceX lawsuit is also prompting some to question whether the Atlas V can be replaced by the Falcon 9v1.1.
Gass said neither Russian manufacturer NPO Energomash or ULA have been formally notified of a halt in deliveries; five RD-180s have been ordered for delivery in 2014. Gass said the move announced by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin was a hypothetical what-if, but not yet enacted.
Nonetheless, ULA is already exploring with suppliers how to accelerate Delta IV deliveries in the event Atlas V becomes prematurely grounded due to the engine sourcing problem. Industry sources say a U.S.-produced version of the RD-180 could cost as little as $1 billion. A new engine design is estimated to cost between $1.5-$2.2 billion depending on the timeline and technology pursued.
Gass says ULA is primarily dedicated to meeting commitments to loft the payloads needed in the 36-core deal. The deal specifies the number of each booster needed, but flexibility built into the EELV program from the start allows for each satellite to be mated to either the Delta IV or Atlas V. "We … are committed to meeting our customer’s needs," Gass said. "Who pays? We will settle that out afterwards." At issue is who would pick up the tab for breaking commitments already made to Atlas V suppliers and accelerating the Delta IV work. He did not cite a figure for these measures.
Gass said the contract allows for basic flexibility to shift payloads between the satellites. Neither ULA nor the Air Force want to reopen and renegotiate the 36-core deal, which took roughly three years to hammer out. The plan at the start of the negotiations was to contract for 50 cores, but the number diminished amid pressure from Congress and the Office of the Secretary of Defense to allow for competition in up to 14 of those missions. But even those 14 have eroded now, further limiting SpaceX’s opportunity to nab national security launch work in the near term.
ULA’s contracts with suppliers assume a sale of the full 50 cores to get the best possible pricing. "If the government wants to unwind the 36 [-core buy], they are not going to get the price for 50 anymore," Gass says.