Monday, December 28, 2009

United Launch Alliance's quiet, workmanlike success

This year has been one of the most eventful in space history, but there's a hidden gem that deserves extra attention.

Astronauts installed the last of the international partners' laboratory modules at the space station. The space shuttle program marched toward its retirement. NASA launched a gargantuan new moon rocket on its first test flight. The White House conducted a review of the entire space program.

With the future of human space exploration up in the air, it's no surprise that dominated headlines throughout 2009.

Let's not let this year pass without recognizing one of the most important achievements in U.S. aerospace in recent years: the successful deployment of the United Launch Alliance.

The joint venture of The Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. has come into its own this year, apparently overcoming a long list of challenges to merging the country's two biggest rocket developers into a single, functional team.

Over the past 36 months, the launch alliance successfully flew 37 missions on three rockets from complexes in Florida and California. All the while, the leaders of the company navigated federal regulators and one of the worst economies in U.S. history to combine engineering, manufacturing and launch operations with almost no impact on the on-time launch of military, intelligence, commercial and science spacecraft.

In 2010, the manufacturing operation in Alabama will be ready to assemble both Boeing Delta IV and Lockheed Martin Atlas V rockets in the finalization of perhaps the most complicated aspects of the merger.

You might say, "Big deal. That's how it's supposed to work." Yes, it is. But so often, in the complex business of space launch, an endeavor ambitious as United Launch Alliance tends to pile up extra costs, months of schedule delays and mountains of spinoff problems. Consistently delivering spacecraft to orbit over a sustained period of time means ULA made good on the biggest promise it made during the merger: assured access to space.

Some jobs were lost in the consolidation, but more might have been lost had the two companies remained separate entities struggling to stay alive in this economic climate.

Launching rockets with regularity is not easy, though. The men and women who made it happen for United Launch Alliance the past few years deserve kudos. In the long run, what they've done may have saved the U.S. space-launch business from a much more costly government bailout.

That's worthy of year-end congratulations.


Anonymous said...

Kurt1524 posted ...

Pure experience and decades of many successes and some failures is what make ULA so stable and reliable. The people of ULA is what it is all about. I work with many of them on both coasts and they are truly professional and dedicated and this makes for the confidence that is absolute with the clients very important payloads. I know who I would be launching with if it where my satellites.

Anonymous said...

fnsgreen commented ...

What probably got them working together was a couple of small upstarts: Spacex and Orbital. A pair of young, enterprising organizations that are enthused about a future in space exploration and commercialization. Let's hear it for free and FAIR enterprizem and let's hope they are not squashed by the two giants. My hope is the ULA are not represenatives of what some people call the Military Industrial Complex.

Graham said...

My hat is most definately off to them.It's been a very difficult undertaking,but they've made it work.WELL DONE.!!Carry on.

Anonymous said...

ULA has done well as a government contractor. Both the Delta and Atlas are fundamentally good designs, and they are launched by a remarkably small (~100) and efficient team, in comparison to either Shuttle or Ares.

However, once Brevard led the world in commercial satellite launches; today we have almost none; ULA has had, as far as I know, only one commercial (i.e. non-US-government-funded) launch in the past two years. Ariane has most of the market, so we can't blame it on cheap Asian labor. Part of the difficulty is that cost isn't the first priority for ULA when doing business with the government. Perhaps the more commercially aggressive SpaceX will fill the gap.

Perhaps more important for NASA, ULA did not make any serious effort to persuade NASA to use the Delta or Atlas for human launch (from Cx 37 or 41) rather than the Ares, resulting in huge duplicate costs since the US government has now funded three very similar medium-lift launch vehicles, Delta, Atlas, and Ares.

Anonymous said...

ULA is the best aerospace monopoly ever put together.

Anonymous said...

To call this monopoly a success is laughable! Check out how many launches (commercial and otherwise) the Russians did last year! It's pure ignorance to imply that we are competing in the commercial satellite business, either with the Russians or Europeans. And let me head off the inevitable argument that those programs are government subsidized. ULA is a giant of government tax dollar waste. Let's hope the new generation of space explorers (SpaceX, Orbital, and Richard Branson's venture) are given a tenth of what the behomeths Lockheed and Boeing have recieved from the government and they will crush ULA and Ares!

Anonymous said...

Hats off to a hard working group who deserve our thanks and congratulations. I have to believe that it was not easy to merge two very different groups - and yet it has been done successfully. Great job ULA!