A bridge too far: Why Delta rockets aren’t the answer

A bridge too far: Why Delta rockets aren’t the answer
© Courtesy of ULA

When it comes to the future of national security space launch, everyone agrees on three things: competition is good, affordability is paramount and we must transition to all-American engines as soon as possible. 

What no one agrees on, however, is the best way to achieve that third objective. But if you agree with the first two tenets, there’s only one solution to the third, and that’s to keep flying the Atlas V until the next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket is ready. An Atlas “bridge” maintains assured access to space, strengthens competition, ensures the long-term health of the American launch industry and will save taxpayers more than $2 billion. 

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If you’re just now joining this discussion, here’s a quick primer: my company, United Launch Alliance, has been the Department of Defense’s go-to partner for launches of the nation’s most critical satellites for a decade. And we’ve delivered, with more than 100 consecutive successful launches. That’s unprecedented in the history of launch. We have two rocket models: the Atlas V, which is powered by a Russian-made RD-180 engine, and the Delta IV, which has American engines but costs significantly more than Atlas. 

We’re now developing a new rocket, the powerful American Vulcan Centaur. When it debuts just three years from now, it will be the most versatile launch vehicle on the planet. 

In the meantime, America still needs to get satellites into space and wants to facilitate competition for those opportunities among multiple providers. We believe the best path for the nation is to end the production of Delta so we can reduce our costs and to fly Atlas until Vulcan Centaur is ready. This is the most affordable way to perform upcoming launches while maintaining assured access to space. Flying Atlas also allows ULA to offer a competitive product on the commercial market at a time when we need commercial business to maintain rates, drive prices down and provide the funding for investment in our new launch vehicle.  

Of course, the issue is that the Atlas uses a Russian-made engine. We agree wholeheartedly that it’s time to transition to an American engine, and we’re working tirelessly to field that new all-American vehicle in roughly half the time it’s taken to develop previous rockets. We’ll get there — we just need a little time and a smooth, predictable transition plan to make it happen. 

Some say the answer is to retire the Atlas and fly Delta instead — after all, it has an American engine already built in. Here’s why that’s not a good answer for warfighters or taxpayers:

It’s too expensive: Delta is an amazing rocket, but it’s costly to produce. Its burnt-orange foam insulation has to be applied by hand. Its production line is bigger and more complex than Atlas’s. And its components are pricier. The Air Force estimates switching to an all-Delta fleet will cost taxpayers $2 billion or more. 

It will stifle competition: Delta is unlikely to be cost-competitive on any but the heaviest of satellite payloads, which would effectively deny the Air Force the benefit of competitions on lower-end launches. Atlas, on the other hand, has already won a number of competitive commercial and civil space launches. If you want true competition, Atlas is the only answer. 

It will put a damper on innovation: Forcing ULA to use Delta means it won’t fly as many competitively-awarded launches, which will restrict the critical stream of funding that we need to develop the Vulcan Centaur. That will inevitably delay development of the new rocket, making warfighters wait that much longer for the introduction of new innovations. Atlas, on the other hand, keeps us on pace for a first flight in 2019 — again, that’s twice as fast as historical development programs have moved. 

If you believe that competition is good, and if you believe that affordability is paramount, an Atlas bridge is the only answer. The hardworking, innovative men and women of ULA are proud of their support to America’s space launch capability. From GPS and missile warning to secure communications and weather prediction, we’ve launched the satellites the military intelligence community depends on for every mission — and we’ve done so with reliability no one can match. We’re ready to continue that mission. Please ask Congress to create the smooth transition from Atlas to Vulcan Centaur that will keep America’s launch industry healthy for decades to come. 

Bruno is the president and chief executive officer of United Launch Alliance.