America’s premier rocket launch services provider United Launch Alliance, or ULA, may be up for sale according to media reports, including Reuters and the Wall Street Journal. Any such sale would result in a major shakeup of the American rocket launching business with far reaching implications.
ULA was formed in 2006 as a 50:50 joint venture between aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing that combined their existing expendable rocket fleet families – the Atlas V and Delta IV – under one roof.
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According to Reuters, Aerojet Rocketdyne recently proffered a $2 billion cash offer to buy ULA from Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
“Aerojet Rocketdyne board member Warren Lichtenstein, the chairman and chief executive of Steel Partners LLC, approached ULA President Tory Bruno and senior Lockheed and Boeing executives about the bid in early August,” sources told Reuters.
ULA’s Bruno declined to comment on the story via twitter.
“Wish I could, but as a matter of policy, we don’t comment on this type of story,” Bruno tweeted in response to inquiries.
Aerojet-Rocketdyne currently is a major supplier to ULA by providing first and second stage engines for use in the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. They also manufacture the Space Shuttle Main Engines now being repurposed as the RS-25 to serve as first stage engines for NASA’s mammoth new SLS deep space rocket.
Since 2006 ULA has enjoyed phenomenal launch success with its venerable fleet of Atlas V and Delta IV rockets and also enjoyed a virtual launch monopoly with the US Government and for the nations most critical national security military payloads.
And just last week, ULA conducted its 99th launch with the successful blastoff of an Atlas V with the MUOS-4 military communications satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for the U.S. Navy.
But the recent emergence of rival SpaceX – founded by billionaire Elon Musk – with the lower cost Falcon 9 rocket and the end of the ULA’s launch monopoly for high value military and top secret spy satellites has the potential to undermine ULA’s long term business model and profitability. In May, the US Air Force certified the SpaceX Falcon 9 for national security payload launches.
Furthermore a Congressional ban on importing the Russian-made RD-180 first stage engines that power the Atlas V rocket, that takes effect in a few years, has threatened the rockets future viability. The Atlas V dependence on Russia’s RD-180’s landed at the center of controversy after Russia invaded Crimea in the spring of 2014.
To date the Atlas V enjoys a 100 percent success rate after over 50 launches.
The Atlas V will also serve as the launch vehicle for Boeing’s new ‘Starliner’ space taxi to transport astronauts to the ISS as soon as 2017 – detailed in my onsite story here.
In response to the Congressional RD-180 engine ban and relentless cost pressures from SpaceX, ULA CEO Tory Bruno and ULA Vice President for Advanced Concepts and Technology George Sowers announced ULA will develop a cost effective new rocket named Vulcan using American made engines.
“To be successful and survive ULA needs to transform to be more of a competitive company in a competitive environment,” Dr. Sowers told Universe Today in a wide ranging interview regarding the rationale and goals of the Vulcan rocket.
Vulcan is ULA’s next generation rocket to space and slated for an inaugural liftoff in 2019.
However, Lockheed Martin and Boeing are only providing funds to ULA on a quarterly basis to continue development of the Vulcan.
Vulcan’s first stage will most likely be powered by the BE-4 engine being developed by the secretive Blue Origin aerospace firm owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos.
Interestingly, ULA is also evaluating the AR-1 liquid fueled engine being developed by Aerojet-Rocketdyne.
The final decision on which engine to use is expected sometime in 2016.
The engine choice could clearly be impacted if Aerojet-Rocketdyne buys ULA.
Aerojet-Rocketdyne has also sought to buy the rights to manufacture the Atlas V from ULA, which is currently planned to be retired several years after Vulcan is introduced.
To this writer, ULA would seem to be worth far more than $2 Billion. They own manufacturing and rocket launch facilities on both coasts and in several states.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.