The ULA Nightmare Scenario

Air Force Space Command is searching for the “sweet spot” of rocket launches per year so that it can keep spacelift affordable and keep its principal vendor, United Launch Alliance, in the business, said AFSPC Commander Gen. William Shelton. He told reporters in Washington, D.C., last week that he thinks “between six and 10 booster cores a year” is a number that would afford ULA some predictability and get the price as low as possible. Shelton said the cost of boosters has leaped 40 percent because ULA’s parents, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, invested heavily in “economic-order-quantity” production of rocket parts and engines in the 1990s and later, but an expected boom in the commercial launch market didn’t materialize. That inventory is now nearly gone, and Shelton said the Pentagon needs to keep the business reasonably lucrative for ULA, because its exit from the business would be a “nightmare scenario.” ULA is “the only supplier of the full gamut of launch capability,” he said. The price jump also comes from engines, which have become “inordinately expensive” in recent years due to declining demand, said Shelton during the March 22 press roundtable.