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United Launch Alliance (ULA) is a provider of spacecraft launch services to the United States government. It was formed as a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense, Space & Security in December 2006 by combining the teams at the two companies. U.S. government launch customers include the Department of Defense and NASA, as well as other organizations. With ULA, Lockheed and Boeing held a monopoly on military launches for more than a decade until the US Air Force awarded a GPS satellite contract to SpaceX in 2016.[2]

United Launch Alliance
FoundedDecember 1, 2006; 12 years ago (2006-12-01)
HeadquartersCentennial, Colorado, U.S.
Key people
Tory Bruno (CEO)
ProductsAtlas V, Delta IV
Number of employees

ULA provides launch services using two expendable launch systemsDelta IV and Atlas V. The Atlas and Delta launch system families have been used for more than 50 years to carry a variety of payloads including weather, telecommunications and national security satellites, as well as deep space and interplanetary exploration missions in support of scientific research. ULA also provides launch services for non-government satellites: Lockheed Martin retains the rights to market Atlas commercially.[3]

Beginning in October 2014, ULA announced that they intended to undertake a substantial restructuring of the company, its products and processes, in the coming years in order to decrease launch costs. ULA is planning on building a new rocket that will be a successor to the Atlas V, using a new rocket engine on the first stage. In April 2015, they unveiled the new vehicle as the Vulcan, with the first flight of a new first stage planned for no earlier than 2020.[4]



ULA's headquarters building in Centennial, Colorado

Formation of the joint ventureEdit

Boeing and Lockheed Martin announced their intent to form the United Launch Alliance joint venture on May 2, 2005.[5] ULA merged the production and operation of the government space launch services of the two companies into one central plant in Decatur, Alabama, and merged all engineering into another central facility in Littleton, Colorado. Marketing and sales responsibilities for the Delta and Atlas launch vehicles was retained by the parent companies.[6]

Boeing Integrated Defense Systems Delta IV and Lockheed Martin Space Systems Atlas V are both launchers developed for the late-1990s US government Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program intended to provide the government with assured access to space.

ULA had a peak of seven space launch facilities during 2005–2011. It announced a consolidation to five in 2008 with the intent to close two of its three Delta II pads,[7] and closed the two-pad launch complex at Cape Canaveral after its final Delta II launch in 2011.[8]

SpaceX challenged the United States antitrust law legality of the launch services monopoly on October 23, 2005, creating a competition with reusable launch systems.[9] The FTC gave their anti-trust clearance on October 3, 2006.[10]

Two years following company formation from units of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, ULA announced it would lay off 350 workers in early 2009, reducing from a company-wide employment of 4200 employees in 2008.[11] In the event, ULA had approximately 3900 employees by August 2009.[12]

In November 2010, United Launch Alliance was selected by NASA for consideration for potential contract awards for heavy lift launch vehicle system concepts, and propulsion technologies.[13]

It was announced in August 2014 that Michael Gass, ULA CEO since ULA was founded in 2006, would step down immediately and that he would be replaced by Tory Bruno, effective immediately.[14]

In September 2014, it was announced that the firm had won a contract from the United States Air Force for US$938 million for additional work on military rocket launch services related to its existing contracts with the US Air Force.[15]

ULA announced in February 2015 that they are considering undertaking domestic production of the Russian RD-180 engine at the Decatur, Alabama rocket stage manufacturing facility. The US-manufactured engines would be used only for government civil (NASA) or commercial launches, and would not be used for US military launches.[16][needs update]

Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc submitted a $2 billion offer to purchase the joint venture on September 8, 2015.[17] According to industry officials, the bid, if successful, would likely create a unified leadership for the company.[18] On September 16, 2015, spokesperson Todd Blecher for joint owner Boeing commented that Aerojet Rocketdyne's bid was never "seriously entertained" and rejected the offer.[19][20]

Company restructuring after 2014Edit

In October 2014, ULA announced a major restructuring of processes and workforce in order to decrease launch costs by half. One of the reasons given for the restructuring and new cost reduction goals was competition from SpaceX. ULA intends to have preliminary design ideas in place for a blending of the Atlas V and Delta IV technology by the end of 2014, to build a successor that will allow them to cut launch costs in half.[21] The restructuring is intended to facilitate ULA's shift into providing widespread access to space, and growing the customer base to include significant commercial customers in addition to the principally US government customers of ULA's first decade. CEO Tory Bruno stated in November 2014 that he intends to transform the company and reorganize it "to make it more agile, and establish new business models to adapt to the new environment. These changes will lead to improvements in how ULA interacts with its customers, both governmental and commercial, shorter launch cycles, and launch costs cut in half again."[22] ULA intends to shrink the number of company launch pads from six in 2008 and five in 2015 to only two by 2021 as they ramp down the legacy Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles.[7]

In May 2015, ULA stated that it would go out of business unless it won commercial and civil satellite launch orders to offset an expected slump in U.S. military and spy launches.[23] The same month, ULA announced it would decrease its executive ranks by 30 percent in December 2015, with the layoff of 12 executives. The management layoffs are the "beginning of a major reorganization and redesign" as ULA endeavours to "slash costs and hunt out new customers to ensure continued growth despite the rise of SpaceX".[24][25]

In January 2018, ULA took over marketing and sales responsibilities for Atlas V launches. Previously, since the formation of ULA in 2006, ULA had handled the operational side of the launch services but Boeing continued to market Delta launch services and Lockheed Martin continued to market Atlas launch services.[26] ULA has been the major launch service provider to the US "military market since its creation in 2006 as a 50-50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing".[6] "ULA no longer has a monopoly in national security space launches and near-term demand for such launches is expected to soften" according to the Lexington Institute.[6]

The final launch of the Delta II was undertaken by the company on 15 September 2018, after which the rocket was retired.[27]

Headquarters and manufacturingEdit

ULA is headquartered in Centennial, Colorado,[28] with program management, rocket design and engineering centers, test and mission support functions. ULA's largest factory is 1.6 million square feet and located in Decatur, Alabama.[29] Decatur is very close to Huntsville, which is known as "Rocket City" because of its proximity to Redstone Arsenal, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and many aerospace companies.[30] A factory in Harlingen, Texas, fabricates and assembles components for the Atlas V rocket.[31] In 2015, the company announced the opening of an engineering and propulsion test center in Pueblo, Colorado.[32]

Launch facilitiesEdit

The company operates orbital launch sites at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, California.[33] In Florida, ULA has used Launch Complex 41 for Atlas V launches since its maiden flight in August 2002,[34][35] and Launch Complex 37 for Delta IV launches since the rocket's maiden flight in November 2002.[36][37] The company has three launch pads at Vandenberg, as of April 2017.[38] These include Launch Complex 2 for Delta II launches,[39] Launch Complex 3 for Atlas launches,[40][41] and Launch Complex 6 for Delta IV and Delta IV Heavy launches.[42][43] Space Launch Complex 2 is no longer in active use by ULA, since the retirement of the Delta II in September, 2018[39]

Launches from Cape Canaveral typically head east so satellites can get extra momentum from the rotation of the Earth as they head to other planets or an orbit over the equator. Vandenberg Air Force Base is the primary U.S. launch site to send satellites into polar orbits. Commercial and military spacecraft like imaging and weather satellites need to launch southward on a path to reach such an orbit to cover the entire globe from pole-to-pole.[44] However, ULA's Atlas V rocket launched NASA's InSight mission to Mars from the West Coast in 2018, the first interplanetary mission ever to do so.[45]

ULA has announced plans to reduce the number of launch pads in use from five in 2015 to only two by the early 2020s, as part of the company's transition from the Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles to the Vulcan Centaur.[7]

Launch vehiclesEdit

ULA operates the Atlas V, Delta IV, and Delta IV Heavy launch vehicles since 2006,[46] all three have launched with a 100% success rate.[47][48][49][50] The Atlas V and Delta IV rockets were respectively developed by Lockheed Martin and Boeing as part of the EELV program, and first launched in 2002,[51] while the Delta II was previously built and launched by Boeing. The final Delta II mission occurred in 2018,[52][53][54] and ULA plans to phase out the single-stick Delta IV variants by 2019.[55][56] Delta IV Heavy rockets will keep flying to meet customer demand for launching heavy payloads.[57]

In 2014, ULA began development of the Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle, which is designed to meet medium and heavy lift requirements, and will replace both Atlas V and Delta IV.[58] Development of Vulcan began in an effort to lower costs and end reliance on Russian-made RD-180 engines used on the first stage of Atlas V. Vulcan will use the RL10 to power the Centaur V upper stage and a pair of BE-4 engines for its main stage.[33][59] The Vulcan inaugural flight is scheduled for mid 2020.[60]

The company's ten-year product development timeline also includes a new upper stage called Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES), which is planned to replace Centaur V on Vulcan no earlier than 2023.[61][62]

United Launch Alliance fleet: left to right, Delta IV, Delta IV Heavy, Atlas V 400-series, Atlas V 500-series


Commercial and international launches aboard Atlas V and Delta rockets are managed by Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services and Boeing Launch Services, respectively.

The first launch conducted by ULA was of a Delta II, from Vandenberg Air Force Base on December 14, 2006.[63] The rocket carried the USA-193 satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office. This satellite failed shortly after launch and was intentionally destroyed on February 21, 2008 by an SM-3 missile fired from the Ticonderoga class cruiser USS Lake Erie.[64]

On June 15, 2007, the engine in the Centaur upper stage of a ULA-launched Atlas V shut down early, leaving its payload – a pair of NRO L-30 ocean surveillance satellites – in a lower than intended orbit.[65] Nonetheless, the mission was declared a success by the customer.[66]

On October 2, 2015 ULA successfully completed its 100th mission with the launch of Mexsat-2 (also known as Morelos III) from Cape Canaveral aboard an Atlas V.[67]

A launch of the Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016 had a minor first-stage anomaly that led to shutdown of the first-stage engine approximately five seconds before anticipated. The anomaly forced the Centaur upper stage of the rocket to fire for approximately one minute longer than planned, using reserved fuel margin. The preplanned deorbit burn successfully deorbited the stage, but not precisely within the designated location. The anomaly marks the first Atlas V anomaly in over eight years to be publicly acknowledged by ULA.[68]

The company launched the final Delta II rocket, carrying ICESat-2 from Vandenberg Air Force Base SLC-2 on 15 September 2018. This marks the last launch of a Delta family rocket based on the original Thor IRBM.[27]


ULA claimed Launch Service Costs under the Block Buy (marketing publication)

With the introduction of competition from lower-cost launch providers and the increasing costs of ULA launches year-over-year, increased attention has been paid to the amounts ULA has received for US government launch contracts, and for its annual government funding of $1 billion for launch capability and readiness. In particular, an uncontested US Air Force block-buy of 36 rocket cores for up to 28 launches, valued at $11 billion, awarded in Dec 2013, drew protest from competitor SpaceX. SpaceX has claimed the cost of ULA's launches are approximately $460 million each, and has proposed a price of $90 million to provide similar launches.[69] In response, former ULA CEO Michael Gass claimed an average launch price of $225 million, with future launches as low as $100 million.[70]

ULA released contract values to the public and CEO Tory Bruno testified before Congress in March 2015 that whilst ULA receives government subsidies "to conduct national security launches" the same is true of SpaceX who receive funding "to develop new capabilities and the use of low- or no-cost leases of previously developed launch infrastructure".[71]

A political controversy arose in March 2016 following public remarks by ULA VP of Engineering, Brett Tobey, that included comments that were "resentful of SpaceX" and dismissive of one of the two competitors (Aerojet Rocketdyne) for the new engine that will power the Vulcan launch vehicle currently under development.[72] Tobey resigned on March 16,[73] while ULA CEO Tory Bruno disavowed the remarks.[74]Senator John McCain asked the Defense Department to investigate the comments that implied the DoD may have shown "favoritism to a major defense contractor or that efforts have been made to silence members of Congress"[75] and the Secretary of Defense has requested the Inspector General to open an investigation of the controversy.[76]

In June 2017 Ars Technica analyzed a US Air Force budget and concluded that if ULA would be selected for all the Air Force launches in year 2020 and 2021, the cost per launch would be on the order of $420 million.[77] ULA's CEO Tory Bruno described the analysis as "misleading"; in July the company was awarded $191 million single-launch contract to launch the STP-3 mission aboard the heavy-lift Atlas V 551.[78]

See alsoEdit


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External linksEdit