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ULA ready to compete against Elon Musk’s space startup, CEO says

Tory Bruno, chief executive of United Launch Alliance and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Blue Origin, show off a model of the Blue Engine 4. (Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

Faced with mounting pressure from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the United Launch Alliance’s new chief executive said Monday he has been re-configuring the company in order to compete, slashing the cost of national security launches and developing a new launch system.

In an interview with Washington Post reporters, Tory Bruno said that since he was named CEO of ULA last summer his job has been “to literally transform the company,” and he also took a jab at his upstart competitor, saying it was risky to rely on Musk’s relatively new space company for national security launches.

For years, ULA, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, had it made. It had the backing of two of the most powerful defense contractors in the world, and no one to challenge its dominance in the lucrative field of launching national security satellites into space.

But in recent months, the Colorado-based company has faced two very big challenges. First, Musk’s startup space company sued the Air Force, saying that it should be able to compete with ULA for the launches. The company recently settled the suit, and the Air Force has pledged to certify it, perhaps within a few months, so that SpaceX can compete for upcoming contracts.

ULA's second hurdle is its Russian-made RD-180 engine.  Musk has criticized ULA for using the engine at a time of strained relations between the U.S. and Russia over the crisis in the Ukraine. And late last year, Congress imposed a ban on the RD-180, which the ULA uses in its Atlas V rocket, by 2019.

To end dependence on the Russian engine, ULA recently announced a partnership with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space company to build a new, American-made engine. (Bezos also owns The Washington Post.) ULA is also partnering with Aerojet Rocketdyne on a new engine, but that company is further behind on development, Bruno said.

The Blue Origin engine, the BE-4, won’t be ready for test flights until 2019 at the earliest, Bruno said. And it could be 2022 or 2023 before it would be certified by the Pentagon for national security launches.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has concerns about that timeline, telling Congress last week that 2019 “was pretty aggressive, and I’m not sure we can make it.”

Bruno said that he thought there was support in Congress for softening the deadline, saying many “now really understand this complex issue. … We have very good support everywhere in Congress.”

He said if Congress doesn't act, there will be a gap of a few years when the Pentagon might not be able to launch its payloads into space, which help soldiers communicate, among other things. ULA has orders for 29 Russian engines, which would “barely get us” to the first flight with the new engine in 2019, Bruno said. And it would not be enough to allow the company to continue launches after 2019, while the new engine is brought on line.

But industry officials have said that ULA also has the Delta IV rocket, which does not use the RD-180, and could launch the military satellites -- albeit at a higher price.

Still, he also said that ULA is far more reliable in launching on schedule than SpaceX. When asked if he thought it was risky to rely on SpaceX he said, "I do."

"We have a perfect mission success record and our schedule certainty is also substantial," he said. "Launching on time is huge."

SpaceX took exception to Bruno's comments. "The Air Force and the taxpayers deserve more from ULA and its latest CEO, whose remarks are purposely misleading, but not unexpected," SpaceX spokesman John Taylor said in a statement. "In anticipation of having to face real competition for the first time, ULA is distorting the facts in an effort to hide its own shortcomings. This is merely the latest example that ULA is realizing that its long-held monopoly is coming to an end.”

SpaceX has made some ground-breaking strides in recent years. It was the first commercial company to supply the International Space Station with cargo, and it also recently won a contract, along with Boeing, to take astronauts there. SpaceX has said it could perform the national security launches for far cheaper than ULA.

Bruno said that since ULA's inception, the company "has cut the price of launch in half, and I'm going to cut it in half again." While he declined to provide specific numbers, he vowed to "be competitive with SpaceX's prices."

In addition to the new engine, Bruno said ULA is working on an entirely new launch system that would ultimately replace its Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. He declined to discuss details, saying they would be unveiled in April.