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ULA is not going down without a fight

The ULA (United Launch Alliance) press conference is worth viewing if you are interested in the space industry. Their upper-stage engine design is quite interesting, partly because they are looking at the ability to store propellants in orbit for long-ish periods of time. They have now pushed the rest of the camel of orbital refuelling depots on to the national scene.

From a business perspective, they have taken pages out of SpaceX’s play book. The new rocket will be done with IR&D funds and once built it will have a published price schedule. Both are considerable breaks with the past.

A number of the big players have tried hard to down play this idea. A few years ago NASA tried to deep-six their report that showed such depots were better for deep space than the ‘program of record’. The effort failed and the report got out anyway and I have it.

I am considerably less excited by other elements of their vehicle and their time scale. They may have to do better than partial reuse by 2023 to survive in what is rapidly becoming a ferociously competitive market for cheap launch.

8 comments to ULA is not going down without a fight

  • Specific technological claims aside, I am encouraged more that despite companies like SpaceX taking a dominant position as far as private technology goes (as opposed to government funded), that there are new entrants still coming into the market and that they are proposing different approaches than either the traditional NASA dogma or other new market entrants.

    The greater the variety and differentiation, the sooner that we can see which ideas work and which ideas do not work. Even though the SpaceX attempt to do a vertical descent onto a platform at sea did not work, I have no doubt that they will eventually achieve this – probably next year, rather than this one – although there is another attempt in June.

    I am hoping that storage of fuel and other advantages arise as this provides justification for a commercial Earth-orbit platform for such things. This has always been one of the difficulties of breaking the back of space tourism – where do you actually go when you get out of the Earth’s atmosphere as everywhere is too far. NASA have always made clear their opposition to space tourism and only accept it on the ISS because otherwise the Russians would be even further in hock than they already are.

  • Paul Marks

    I wish ULA (and SpaceX) every success.

    Even if ULA does go out of business – I am sure the talented people there will be back in the space business working for other companies.

    I have always believed that the creation of NASA was a mistake (Dale may not agree with me here – but there we go).

    I can see a role for the government military in space (specifically the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force), but I do not believe that a special government civilian space agency should ever have been created.

    Apart from military operations – space travel should have been left to private companies and charitable foundations.

    Of course there was no American Federal company taxation till 1909 and no Federal individual income tax till 1913.

    Today (contrary to the brainwashing of the education system and the media – with their Hollywood-Harry Reid view that “the rich” and “big business” do not pay taxes), American company and individual taxation is crushing.

    Those people who say “the private sector does not have the money for space exploration” fail to take into account the crushing level of individual taxation (especially on “the rich”) and company taxation, in the United States.

    Today American company taxation (on the boo-hiss “corporations”) is some of the highest in the Western World, and individual income and Capital Gains taxation in some parts of the United States (for example the largest State – California) is about the same as it in France.

    It is a tragedy (and not just for space travel) that the propaganda that the education system and the media present about the United State (the tax free existence of “the rich” and “big business”) is just about the opposite of the truth.

    As most Americans, including some self described libertarians, do not know the truth (indeed what they believe to be the truth – is the opposite of the truth), I fear there is little chance of saving the United States.

  • I have always believed that the creation of NASA was a mistake (Dale may not agree with me here – but there we go).

    NASA may have been appropriate at the point of its inception, but it has long outlived its usefulness. It should have been wound up after the Apollo-Soyuz Test Flight in 1975.

  • Dale Amon

    What many of us in the space community would prefer is for NASA to return to its roots as ‘NACA’, an agency whose primary purpose was to do hard graft R&D and make it available to American industry. It was a much smaller organization then, and its contributions to aviation were actually pretty major, perhaps even enough to say that it truly paid for itself. I’d like to see most of the current roles of NASA hived off. As an agency it is too many things to too many people. It has too many constituencies to satisfy. There are many of us who have thought for decades that the science part of NASA should be part of the National Science Foundation. There is perhaps a role for an agency focused totally on exploration, one that buys its canoe’s off the shelf and sends human explorers into the unknown. I think you would find many in NASA would agree with me.

  • Kevin B

    “Huge Government Bureaucracy voluntarily Downsizes itself”

    “Our mission here is done.” Says Head of Agency

    “Private Enterprise and the Market much better placed to perform tasks.” Says Government Spokesperson.

  • CaptDMO

    I seem to remember reusable launch vehicles from my youth.
    They were called Estes rockets. They had parachutes.
    There was even one that had wings that popred into place and glided back to the ground.
    I ALSO remember a 5 cent “deposit” on reusable beverage bottles.
    Didn’t matter WHO brought the back, but it sure made the common travel ways MUCH less problematic with “other peoples” garbage, than say the tourist pathways of Mt. Everest.
    (or Iridium satellite orbit paths)

  • Paul

    The idea that NASA is, in fact, a civilian agency, is simply not true. Many if not most of it’s administrators have been military men of one sort or another and it operates in close liaison with the Pentagon both on launch vehicle policy and on technology development.

    Back in the late 1950s Ike wanted the space program to have some civilian cover so NASA was created, but let’s not fool ourselves, NASA is part of the US National Security apparat. So was NACA for that matter.

  • Julie near Chicago


    “NASA may have been appropriate at the point of its inception, but it has long outlived its usefulness.”

    I beg to differ. NASA’s mission may have changed slightly from its original one, but it now serves a far greater and more serious goal: It performs Outreach.

    And not an outreach designed merely to educate the lumpenproletariat as to the usefulness of science (or of NASA) — although that objective is also in there somewhere. No, it is now most notably dedicated to furthering World Peace by way of educating Muslims about the glories that their contributions to science have brought to us all. This will improve their self-image, which will hopefully result in a tempering of their perfectly understandable tendencies to aggression, and will also send them the message that We appreciate Them.

    This is surely far more important than anything to do with understanding how to cope with certain difficult problems that keep Man from venturing out among the Stars.

    (If anyone wants a refresher, here’s a 2010 column by Jake Tapper for ABC:

    http://web.archive.org/web/20120826002738/http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2010/07/white-house-nasa-defend-comments-about-nasa-outreach-to-muslim-world-criticized-by-conservatives .)