Friday, May 1, 2015

SpaceX vs. United Launch Alliance

Nowadays, SpaceX is known as one of the larger companies within the space travel industry. One of SpaceX’s main ventures is launching rockets. Of course, there are other launch companies who provide similar services. The largest competiting company is the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a 50-50 joint venture owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Since ULA’s primary products are rockets that launch satellites or other objects into space, it is natural for them to be competitors of SpaceX. Currently, ULA has three rockets: the Atlas V, Delta II, and Delta IV, most of which are sold to the United States government. Controversy with arose in 2014 when SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, claimed that ULA rocket launches cost the government $460 million dollars each, opposed to SpaceX’s relatively low cost of $90 million dollars per launch. SpaceX protested by stating that the process for contracting the Air Force’s launches should be competitive, rather than uncontested, as ULA was being handed large launch contracts without the consideration of SpaceX (Leopold). ULA was not very happy about this, and responded by claiming that their launches were around $160 million dollars apiece (Gruss). Also, CEO Tory Bruno claimed that it was risky to rely on SpaceX for national security launches (Davenport). By trying to force their way into the more lucrative launching business, SpaceX is trying to gain more funding and to display their newfound strength in space travel. Even though ULA is newer, Lockheed Martin and Boeing are old and established companies that have much more history than SpaceX.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 on the left, and
ULA's Delta IV on the right.
Yet, SpaceX’s claims have managed to scare ULA into making some fairly drastic changes. These changes start with cutting launch costs in order to compete with SpaceX, as well as developing a new launch system. Unlike SpaceX, ULA buys many of its parts from other producers, which is problematic. This is because the RD-180 engine, used for the Atlas V, is made in Russia. Due to tense relations with Russia over affairs in Ukraine, the United States government has banned the RD-180 engine, leaving ULA with only five RD-180s for about forty launches through 2024 (Gruss). This is an important difference between SpaceX and ULA: SpaceX is unaffected by problems with suppliers, since they have the capabilities to manufacture their own products, while ULA is susceptible to restrictions and problems from external forces. This is how SpaceX will continue to keep their prices low, and why it will take a while for ULA to catch up to SpaceX, if they can even catch up.

That being said, ULA is also working on some projects of their own. One such project is to address the aforementioned problems with the engines. There are currently plans to develop a replacement engine for the RD-180, the BE-4, built by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ company, Blue Origin. There are currently plans for testing of the BE-4 in 2016, with the first flight being in 2019 (ULA). The BE-4 will be much stronger than SpaceX’s current Merlin 1D, with a planned thrust of 2,400 kilonewtons, which will be competitive with SpaceX’s planned Raptor engine. Another project that ULA is working on to compete with SpaceX is the Vulcan rocket. The Vulcan is planned to be much cheaper than the Delta and Atlas models that ULA currently uses (about $100 million dollars), and will use the BE-4 engine that is currently being developed (Clark). There are also some plans to have degree of reusability, perhaps using parachutes and helicopters to recover stages of rocket, but these ways would not be tested until the 2020s (Bruno). Clearly, the big unveiling used to display their plans is a way to relieve pressures from SpaceX as within a couple of years, SpaceX might not just be slightly ahead of ULA’s current capabilities—they might be far ahead.

Clearly, SpaceX fares well against ULA. By maintaining a low launch cost, SpaceX is more able to obtain launch contracts with companies as well as attract interest from the government. Also, when SpaceX is eventually to launch people to Mars reliably, a lower cost will mean that more people will be able to go to Mars and at a faster rate. This lower cost is due to their ability to make almost, if not everything, on their own. Another benefit is that they are extremely efficient in planning and building their projects. Currently, it has been 13 years since the inception of SpaceX, and within these 13 years, tremendous progress has been made to further space travel. From rockets to space capsules, SpaceX is beginning to take a leading position in the industry. Presumably, the smaller size of SpaceX allows for a more efficient workspace; all of the engineers are together in one place, so the development process is greatly streamlined. Therefore, the so-called competitors of SpaceX do not really pose any kind of immediate threat as they lack the capabilities that SpaceX currently possesses.

- Kevin Li