back to article SpaceX is go for US military GPS sat launch, smashes ULA monopoly

The US military has awarded SpaceX an $82.7m contract to launch a next-generation GPS satellite into orbit. The move is bad news for the United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, that has been the sole provider of military launches for over a decade, and which has charged the US government an …

  1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

    One wonders why it took so long


    1. Preston Munchensonton

      Exactly right. No need to look any further than the comments from the former ULA exec:

      The government was not happy with us not bidding that contract because they felt that they had bent over backwards to lean the fill to our advantage.

      Crony capitalism toppled by competition. Money talks and I certainly hope that SpaceX can deliver at the prices they bid.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Low Ball

        > "...I certainly hope that SpaceX can deliver at the prices they bid."

        SpaceX has good throw, and if their bid is too low for profit it will rise in future. If their reusability thing goes as planned, bids may actually go down some.

      2. JeffyPoooh Silver badge

        PM wrote: "Crony capitalism toppled by competition."

        What an odd sentence.

        I know what you meant, but what you wrote is just wrong on several levels.

    2. goldcd

      Well not quite pork

      which I always took to be about "taking money to my state for my people".

      I presume a large wedge of ULA cash went to Russia for their engines.

      I suspect it was more 'bribery' - with Boeing and their ilk paying a far greater chunk of cash in lobbying.

      Quite nice to see their "cost of doing business model" ending up shafting them.

      1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge
        Black Helicopters

        Re: Well not quite pork

        Pork pies feature in there somewhere, I am sure

    3. Gary Bickford

      re: One wonders why it took so long

      Pork - not really, just a classic tech disruption. The Atlas and Delta vehicles are 1960s Era technology, originally designed as ICBMs. They have been updated greatly but still. ULA and it's parents are companies whose entire business structure has been subsumed into the government contracting process, which is a highly soecialized, expensive operational paradigm. There are reasons why few small companies even try to work on government projects directly, but subcontract to big companies that have the huge paperwork mill departments and expertise to meet the government requirements and stay out of jail. (Case in point: long ago I was told by a McDonnell Douglas executive that the paperwork trail for a single DC-10 weighed as much as the airplane over its lifetime. Perhaps a small exaggeration, but we were working on a proposal to scan tgat paperwork so they could have the huge hangar back, where the paperwork was stored.)

      So SpaceX has two benefits -or three - new tech that cuts the cost of mfg in 1/2, new business model that depends on computing to eliminate paper shuffles to meet USAF and federal contract requirements, and the extreme pressure on the USAF to go away from Russian parts and use Made In USA parts. ULA is more like a deer in the headlights of new business technology and rocket technology.

  2. Will Godfrey Silver badge

    Fun Times

    This is just priceless!

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I sure hope SpaceX puts a lot of extra security around that launch. I wouldn't put anything past these incumbent bastards to make SpaceX look risky. There's a LOT of money at stake.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Security

      It's more that a LOT of money. ULA have traditionally charged more than double the $83 million SpaceX is getting for the launch so their profit per launch must have been eye watering. And that's just the icing on the cake. The real earner is the $800 million a year ULA gets from the US government just for providing a launch capability. I can't see that carrying on for too long if they decline to bid on more launch contracts. Even in the world of Pork you need some perceived return for the money.

      1. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: Security

        Having worked in the defense industry many decades ago, I daresay that ULA also has a substantially larger staff that is probably heavy on middle-manglement, powerpoints, and meetings. Much time and money wasted on the meaningless instead of actually doing the job.

      2. Gary Bickford

        Re: Security

        Actually their profit wasn't that great. Their problem is that their _cost_ is more than $83 million.

  4. Gordon 10 Silver badge

    What a week for SpaceX

    First the Mars mission and now this.

    Everything is coming up Musky.

    1. Gene Cash Silver badge

      Re: What a week for SpaceX

      Yeah, but Musk has been fighting towards both goals for DECADES.

      I've been following his fight against ULA for 4 or 5 years now. A lot of my friends in the space business don't understand why I champion SpaceX. They get pissed at the lack of jobs & money, and don't understand cost coming down is a GOOD thing.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @Gene Cash - reducing costs...

        Indeed, it's all too easy for any long-running operation (public or private) to have "status quo" as their real day-to-day goal and "because I'm worth it" as their justification. Feynmann's appendix to the Challenger disaster enquiry remains as aspirational as ever:

        They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.

        For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

      2. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: What a week for SpaceX

        "They get pissed at the lack of jobs & money, and don't understand cost coming down is a GOOD thing."

        It is a good thing for serial production work (comsats and suchlike)

        In the space-related arena where I work, existing launch costs are a minor part of the whole package. It'll be good to get them down further but the vast majority of costs are in the labour of desiging and building hundreds of prototypes for one-off missions.

        The pressure to make things as small, as light and as robust as possible(*) is the real cost driver for science misssions and increased launch capacity will simply result in more stuff being piled on top of the stack instead of relaxing the first two parts of that equation.

        What you're not going to see is a science mission consisting of 3 or 4 telescopes instead of just one big one - despite the factor that the prototyping costs mean that the incremental cost of building several sets of flight hardware are almost nothing and that set of 'scopes will be able to do more science than a single one. (substitute plasma detectors or whatever for scopes)

        (*) launch vibration would turn the human body to jelly if the meatsacks weren't specially cushioned and coddled. Hardware launches don't get the same cossetting.

    2. JeffyPoooh Silver badge

      Re: What a week for SpaceX

      Gordon 10: "...What a week for SpaceX. First the Mars mission..."

      You'd be wanting to look up Adm. Rickover's 'Say-Do' rant.

      There is no "Mars mission" this "week".

      You're overly excited.

  5. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    I think ULA prefere the term

    reassuringly expensive.

    Seriously, unlike a lot of other DoD payloads GPS sats are not a $Bn 1 off that absolutely, positively, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die have to work packages. the incremental cost of building another one if there's a launch failure is not that high.

    Of course if SX manages to launch all the GPS satellites without failure people might begin to ask what exactly requires so much money to get the level of reliability that ULA have delivered.

    1. Kharkov

      Reassuringly Expensive...

      I've got to agree, ULA has long traded on it's (admittedly very good) launch-success record, telling people that to get that level of confidence, they needed to pay top dollar.

      The article itself ends with "One wonders why it took so long."

      SpaceX has worked hard to change the access-to-orbit paradigm and it's about to pay off for them in a big way. Once upon a time people had to walk in front of cars with red flags. At the time society couldn't imagine doing it any other way but just a short time later, people's perceptions shifted and in a ridiculously short time, the guy with the red flag was out of a job.

      ULA, over the next five years, is about to see its order book dry up. 2006-us will be astonished that ULA could go dry that fast. 2026-us will indeed wonder 'why it took so long.'

      1. qwertyuiop

        Re: Reassuringly Expensive...

        ...ULA has long traded on it's (admittedly very good) ability to use Russian rocket technology to achieve its launch-success record...


    2. Ben_pi

      Re: I think ULA prefere the term

      I think you will find the same players and level of pork in the bird building industry as the launch industry :)

  6. Mikel

    The reason Congress might be interested is simple: price. SpaceX can launch its standard rocket, the Falcon 9, for $80 to $90 million. ULA’s launch cost is higher: The Government Accountability Organization has reported their average cost is more than $400 million a flight, based on actual Air Force contracts. Bruno says the cost is lower—$164 million to $350 million—but it’s not clear how those figures relate to the costs taxpayers actually cover.

    Asked why SpaceX rockets are so much cheaper than those built by ULA, Shotwell offered the harshest burn of the night, telling lawmakers “I don’t know how to build a $400 million rocket, I don’t understand how expensive they are.”

    1. roytrubshaw

      "SpaceX can launch its standard rocket, the Falcon 9, for $80 to $90 million"

      According to the SpaceX website, the standard launch cost for 4,850Kg to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO) is $61.2 million (that's for the Falcon 9)

      The $90 million is the projected cost for the Falcon Heavy.

      Interesting times ahead - especially once the re-usable first stage becomes more commonplace.

  7. Dave Bell

    I wonder if the successful barge landing was the final straw.

    SpaceX offers a good price without succeeding in recovery. It'll take a while for them to be confident about the reusability, but I can see a point where somebody buying a launch has a chance to buy a share in the rocket, that gives them a refund if the booster is recovered and reusable, rather than a cut in the up-front price.

    It is going to take a while to build up the sort of history that SpaceX would care to risk tens of millions of dollars on. Elon Musk is very unusual: he's willing to take risks. I don't think he's reckless. Red Dragon, for instance, makes a lot of sense as a test for the Falcon Heavy launcher, that part is money he would have to spend anyway.

  8. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Hey, market forces alive and kicking in the USA, and in government procurement, no less!

    Big thumbs up to the SpaceX guys for making it happen

  9. plasmoid

    Why didn't NASA do themselves?

    Is this another example of why outsourcing to the private sector isn't a bright idea? It would make more sense to do this in-house and profit from your own learning, rather than overpaying for old tech.

    1. Terry Barnes

      Re: Why didn't NASA do themselves?

      A step change in cost from $400M to $80M tends to come only through having competing suppliers.

    2. James 51 Silver badge

      Re: Why didn't NASA do themselves?

      They'd need politicians to agree to increase their funding, keep the funding steady and keep their noses out of it.

      Need a 'when hell freezes over' emoticon.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Why didn't NASA do themselves?

        "They'd need politicians to agree to increase their funding, keep the funding steady and keep their noses out of it."

        I was watching the Horizon episode on gravity the other night. The NASA propulsion guy said that the entire propulsion R&D (not just his blue sky part) got hammered because "some big expensive building had to be built in a certain state". The implication being that budgets get spent where the Pols want to spend it and it has to be taken from somewhere else.

    3. cray74

      Re: Why didn't NASA do themselves?

      Why didn't NASA do themselves?

      Is this another example of why outsourcing to the private sector isn't a bright idea?

      NASA has never done it themselves. It has always outsourced to the private sector: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, shuttle, space probes - all designed by private contractors, built by private contractors, and launched by private contractors. NASA sometimes got around to provide launch pads and mission control.

      For example, the Mercury capsule was built by McDonnell Aircraft (now Boeing) and launched on a Convair-built Atlas rocket (now Lockheed Martin). As another example, the shuttle orbiter was built by Rockwell International, the boosters by Morton-Thiokol, the external tank by Lockheed Martin, and it was operated by the United Space Alliance. If NASA wanted flights, it signed contracts.

      So, to answer your question: NASA has little experience building, launching, and running spacecraft. It's a manager and designer of space programs, a coordinator that brings together many contractors and interested scientists, but not a regular rocket driver.

    4. Marshalltown

      Re: Why didn't NASA do themselves?

      You aren't really serious asking that are you? NASA has never done "it" themselves. They are a part of the Department of Commerce! DoC has to at least pay lip service to something vaguely related to encouraging business and "capitalism." These easiest way is be seen to spend tax money liberally paying into the hands of the biggest businesses - more or less corporate welfare in reality.

  10. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    To put this in perspective

    ULA have an unbroken string of 100+ successful launches up to 24 tonnes to LEO

    Ariane 5 has an unbroken string of 70+ successful launches up to 16 tonnes to LEO

    So far SX have managed a successful run of 18 launches before CRS7 went bang.

    Since then they have accumulated another 4 successful launches, with up to 113 tonnes to orbit.

    I don't think Arianespace charge their government customers an arm and a leg for their special pixie dust "mission assurance."

  11. Anonymous John

    Science SpaceX is go for US military GPS sat launch, smashes ULA monopoly

    And on course to create a SpaceX monopoly, which isn't necessarily a good thing.

    1. localzuk

      Re: Science SpaceX is go for US military GPS sat launch, smashes ULA monopoly

      Don't think it does. There's nothing to stop ULA from modernising and reducing their costs. There's also potential for other providers to do the job too.

  12. NotBob

    Taxpayer savings

    Don't worry, any tax money saved will be quickly spent on something else. Probably something unneeded and overpriced...

    1. Fatman Silver badge

      Re: Taxpayer savings

      <quote>Don't worry, any tax money saved will be quickly spent on something else. Probably something unneeded and overpriced...</quote>

      What do you mean will be???

      The USofA is already throwing $T into something called the Joint Strike Fighter (aka the 'F-35'1); and it, like much other defense spending is late and over budget. And it is on schedule to gobble up more tax dollars, so don't even expect any tax payer savings, it is gone in defense department pork.

      It is simply the old Guns vs Butter dilemma2.

      1a couple of links:

      2 A link:

      If you do take the time to read the "Guns versus Butter" wikipedia article, please take note of Eisenhower's speech, The first paragraph says a lot:

      "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children."

      Note the date of this speech. Has anything changed since???

      (Emphasis mine.)

  13. IT Poser

    Close, Elon, but you aren't Ironman yet.

    "Tory Bruno, the new CEO of United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and Gwynne Shotwell, the president of SpaceX"*

    We love the names of both the villain and your Pepper. We can accept replacing weapons maker with Paypal creator. The backstory for your possible arch nemesis, Bezos, already has me looking forward to the sequel.

    What is missing is the arc reactor. Solar panels make for good viewing but do not hold the great power factor that nuclear does. It isn't enough to be better than mere mortals. We crave the great responsibility aspects as well.

    *Thanks for the link Mikel.

  14. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

    The first rule of overpriced government contracts is: you don't talk about overpriced government contracts.

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2019