By 2014, United Launch Alliance wasn’t the rocket industry stalwart it had been since its founding almost a decade earlier, when it had a monopoly on lucrative Pentagon contracts to lift national security satellites into orbit.
So when Tory Bruno accepted the offer to lead the faltering company, which had recently ousted its CEO, he knew what he’d be getting into.
“It was clear they were in serious trouble,” Bruno said in a recent interview. “This is a company that wasn’t supposed to survive.”
Now, about eight years later, after enduring what Bruno called a quest “to completely transform the company” — laying off hundreds of workers, including 40 percent of executives, streamlining processes, shedding surplus real estate — the company, once in a downward spiral, is experiencing a remarkable transformation.
Although SpaceX took a large chunk of its business, ULA, which is based outside Denver, maintained enough to keep going, winning another round of launch contracts to hoist satellites for the Pentagon and intelligence agencies. It was able to persuade Congress to allow it to import enough of the Russian-made engines to keep launching.
After years of delays, it says it is close to flying a next-generation rocket with a new, American-made engine built by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Perhaps most significantly, it recently signed a contract for 38 launches to help install Amazon’s Kuiper internet satellite constellation into orbit as part of the largest commercial launch contract ever. That was on top of nine launches it had previously won and gives ULA a new line of commercial business that could sustain it for years as Bruno seeks to give ULA a solid footing for the future.
Still, there are significant challenges ahead. Its Vulcan rocket has yet to fly, delayed in part because its engine, to be delivered by Blue Origin, is years late. And SpaceX has been developing a fully reusable rocket, known as Starship, that many space analysts say is a transformative vehicle that could upend the industry once again.
“ULA still faces, and will continue to face, significant challenges,” Matthew Weinzierl and Brendan Rosseau, who teach a space economics course at Harvard Business School, wrote in an email to The Post. “Even with ULA’s heritage, certifying a new launch vehicle is no easy feat. It is still rocket science, after all. And even if the Vulcan’s early flights go well, ULA’s competition — many of whom are nimbler and more vertically integrated — will not be standing still.”
ULA was born in an unlikely marriage in 2006 when the Pentagon allowed Lockheed and Boeing to form a joint venture that gave the newly formed company, ULA, a monopoly on all military launch contracts. At the time, the Pentagon was focused on “assured access to space,” emphasizing reliable rockets that would fly successfully, over cost. ULA essentially operated as an arm of the Pentagon, while raking in billions of dollars.
SpaceX tried to prevent the union, filing a lawsuit attempting to block the creation of ULA by arguing that it “destroyed any pretense of competition.” Even though at the time SpaceX had yet to fly a single rocket to orbit, it charged that “SpaceX poses a significant threat to Boeing and Lockheed’s dominant position.”
That suit went nowhere. But a decade later, SpaceX was back in court, and this time it had not only flown its Falcon 9 rocket to orbit, but had contracts with NASA to fly cargo and supplies to the International Space Station. If its rockets were good enough for NASA, SpaceX argued, they should also be good enough to compete for the Pentagon launches that ULA had locked up.
Musk went on the offensive, relentlessly attacking ULA’s primary weakness — the fact that it relied on an engine manufactured in Russia. “Can you imagine if you went back 40 years ago and told people that in 2014 the United States would be at the mercy of Russia for access to low Earth orbit, let alone the moon or anything else, people would have thought you were insane,” he said at the time. “It’s just incredible that we’re in this position. Something needs to be done to get us out of this.”
And he found an ally in Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the late firebrand who at the time led the Armed Services Committee. McCain echoed Musk’s sentiment, arguing that national security launches should not rely on Russian technology.
Again, SpaceX filed suit, this time arguing that it should be allowed to compete against ULA for the Pentagon launch contracts.
“Our toughest competitor on the international launch market is the Russians, and the U.S. Air Force sends them hundreds of millions of dollars every year for Russian engines,” Musk said at the time. “It’s super messed up.”
This time, SpaceX won. The Pentagon settled the suit and SpaceX gained a foothold in the national security launch market.
ULA’s board fired then-CEO Michael Gass and hired Bruno, who at the time was overseeing Lockheed’s missile defense systems. Bruno now says he gave ULA a slim chance of surviving. “From a business school point of view, companies that have that profound a disruption in their environment generally go out of business. In fact, less than 5 percent of them survive,” Bruno said. “So I looked at it and I went, ‘Wow, this is really heading in a pretty negative direction.’ ”
Still, he saw an opportunity to improve a company that had enjoyed a monopoly for years and had gotten complacent. Not having to compete, it extracted enormous sums from the Pentagon, which didn’t flinch at the exorbitant prices as long as the company kept up its launch success.
Now it had to fight, and against the most innovative and disruptive forces ever to tear through the space business. SpaceX had won contracts to fly astronauts to the space station on its Falcon 9 rocket, was showing that you could reuse the boosters, instead of throwing them away as had been done for years and was developing a another, even larger rocket, known as the Falcon Heavy.
ULA had been the dominant player for so long but now, Bruno feared, SpaceX was in a position to take over, potentially leaving the Pentagon where it was before, with a single provider. Though he is well known and respected within the somewhat insular space community, Bruno has nothing near the celebrity cachet of Musk and Bezos. Still, he has enormous influence in a fast-growing industry and is regarded as an engineer’s engineer — thoughtful, calm and deliberative.
And colorful. On weekends, he rides his horse, posting pictures of himself on social media, in the saddle and wearing his cowboy hat.
He moved to remake the company with the sole purpose of battling SpaceX. He laid off 30 percent of ULA’s staff, and took steps to unite what he said were two companies — one that worked on the company’s Atlas V, the other that worked on its Delta rockets — with “separate lines in the factory, and of course separate launchpads,” he said. “But also separate teams and separate management structure and to a large extent even separate accounts.”
It was a massive overhaul, and he had to do it while maintaining ULA’s successful launch record. “Don’t break mission success,” he said. “That was number one.”
He pitted suppliers against each other, making them compete, and then giving each much more volume — but only if they would cut their prices.
He also decided that the company couldn’t just sit back while Musk and SpaceX gobbled it up. “We had to take the fight to the competitors,” Bruno said. “You can’t ignore the other guy and let that company do whatever they want and have an open playing field.”
He also knew he had to get ULA off the Russian-made RD-180 engine.
There, too, he pitted a pair of companies against each other and made them compete for the work. One, Aerojet Rocketdyne, was the industry stalwart, an engine manufacturer with a long legacy in the space business. The other was Bezos’s Blue Origin, a relative newcomer but that had been working for years in secret on a new engine.
At the time, Bezos said that the company had already been working on the engine for some time and was well positioned to partner with ULA. It was a somewhat unusual marriage — Blue Origin, then a start-up that had been secretive about its ambitions, and ULA the big defense contractor that represented the military industrial complex. But they both wanted to see the engine, which Blue plans to use in its New Glenn rocket, come to fruition.
“I think the U.S. needs to have an American-made booster engine. And, finally, I think, for humanity, we need access to space,” Bezos said when he and Bruno announced the partnership in 2014. “This will move all of those things forward. And I feel great about it.”
Bezos and Bruno hit it off, two space geeks with a deep knowledge of rockets and how they work.
“I was surprised the first time I sat with him,” Bruno said of Bezos. “I don’t think I would hurt his feelings if I said that, but I was very surprised at how well versed he was in the technology … we kind of hit it off right away. We had that mutual passion for space and for rocketry. He’s the real deal. He’s not faking it.”
In 2018, Bruno selected Blue Origin over Aerojet Rocketdyne. But the deal has not worked out as well as he had hoped.
Making a new rocket engine is difficult, and Bruno budgeted extra time into the schedule. “I planned on the BE-4 being late because I knew it was ambitious for them,” Bruno told reporters in April. “I did not plan on them being this late.”
Publicly, Bruno has maintained a professional posture, saying he had confidence in the team at Blue and that it would deliver. Privately, he was frustrated with the delays and pressured Blue to get the engine ready. Now, Bruno says delivery of the engine should happen this summer. And the first flight of the new Vulcan-Centaur rocket would come later this year or early next year.
Not only would it have an American-made engine, but ULA plans to reuse them. Unlike SpaceX, which flies its rockets back to Earth so they can be reflown, ULA is still planning to drop the engines out of the rocket’s first stage and catch them, Bruno has said. Being able to reuse the engines would help drive down costs and compete with SpaceX.
So will the launch deal with Amazon announced earlier this year. Since its inception, ULA has relied mostly on the government for revenue, flying missions for the Pentagon or NASA.
But with more than 40 launches booked to fly Amazon’s Kuiper satellite constellation to orbit, the company’s flight rate is set to significantly increase. Typically, ULA flies about 10 missions a year. The Amazon deal would increase that flight rate to 20 to 25 flights, Bruno said, and allow the company to hire “several hundred” more employees. And the more often the rocket flies, the more efficient the company will become, he said, further reducing costs and allowing it to fight for more business.
“Vulcan is much less expensive” than the Atlas V that it currently flies, Bruno said. “As the flight rate goes up there’s economies of scale, so it gets cheaper over time. And of course, you’re introducing reusability so it’s cheaper. It’s just getting more and more competitive.”
That’s the theory, anyway. But with Starship, SpaceX could disrupt the market yet again, and continue to dominate the industry. Amazon has also hired Blue Origin and Arianespace, the French rocket company, to launch batches of its satellites. And the space industry has gone through enormous change since Bruno took over at ULA.
New commercial companies are looking to enter an increasingly crowded market. Rocket Lab, which has already flown a couple dozen missions, is using a helicopter to catch its small first stage. Its next-generation rocket, known as Neutron, would land vertically, as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 does. Relativity Space 3D prints its entire rocket and is hoping to launch for the first time this year.
While Bruno may have built ULA to battle SpaceX, Weinzierl and Rosseau, of Harvard’s Business School, said, it now “will need to find its place in a dynamic and increasingly crowded field.”