Instead of Keeping up with SpaceX Savings, ULA Aims at High-Risk Launch Missions

Colorado Springs, Colo.—Despite losing out to SpaceX in the most recent competition to launch the third GPS III satellite, United Launch Alliance’s president and CEO Tory Bruno is optimistic about winning future launch contracts. “The way those first two GPS competitions were structured,” Bruno told Air Force Magazine at Space Symposium Wednesday, “the bidders meet a minimum standard, and then once they meet that standard, the only differentiator is the price.” That’s why SpaceX has a 2-0 record in the Air Force’s first competitive launch program, according to Bruno. “We do not expect to underbid SpaceX’s price for any of these types of missions,” he said. GPS III satellite launches are examples of “missions for which there is a higher risk-tolerance on the part of the government,” meaning the contract decisions can focus more single-mindedly on price. “It’s those low risk-tolerance missions,” like SBIRS and AEHF satellite launches, “where we are the most competitive,” Bruno insisted.

So instead of trying to beat SpaceX at their own game of extremely low-cost launch, “I intend to bring better value, more reliability, more schedule certainty, and higher performance. That’s worth more than the higher price I’m going to offer.” The next block of seven satellite launch contracts, with a draft request for proposals due out within the next few months, include four more GPS III missions. A draft RFP for the second block of five launches is expected by the end of the year, and “within that there are some high-end missions that would likely put a real premium on reliability and schedule certainty,” Bruno said. Despite ULA’s focus on high-end missions, Bruno said ULA has also taken measures to cut costs in the last few years. ULA has reduced the cost of its Atlas rocket by one-third, he said, and has eliminated a third of its executives. It has consolidated supply chains and plans to shut down three of its five launch pads. ULA also is working on a second round of layoffs. The first round, last year, cut 350 positions, and the current round is “along that size or larger.”