COLORADO SPRINGS — United Launch Alliance staged a counterattack on SpaceX in what has become the featured battle royale at the nation's largest gathering of space leaders.
Centennial-based ULA for
the first time released to reporters at the 30th Annual Space Symposium the price of each government space mission in an effort to dispel criticisms leveled by upstart competitor Space Exploration Technologies Corp., based in California.
"This issue has popped up on nearly every panel this week," said Brendan Curry, vice president of Space Foundation's Washington Operations. "The public should care because America needs and depends on space."
ULA CEO Michael Gass said the cost per launch averages $225 million, not the erroneously computed figure of more than $460 million that SpaceX founder Elon Musk frequently cites.
"SpaceX is very aggressive in their public relations and how they diffuse or obfuscate the issue is by not ever talking about apples and apples, it's apples and oranges," Gass said.
ULA's simpler rockets cost $164 million and its most powerful rockets hit $350 million, he said.
At the heart of the debate is a $11 billion block-buy contract for 36 rockets awarded to ULA by the U.S. Air Force last year.
SpaceX sued the Air Force last month for what it claimed was illegal actions blocking competition by effectively giving ULA — a joint venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. — a monopoly on launch services.
"People use a pejorative term like monopoly. Those are incongruent when you talk about national security. It's not a commercial market, it's not consumerism," Gass said. "I like to think of it as a sole-source provider.
"The nation made a decision to meet its military needs. They wanted assured access and two systems. ULA was formed to solve that problem. Consolidate the infrastructure, deliver two systems as one team, more cost effectively to meet the end-mission needs."
Gass also said the U.S. space industry is currently at the all-time peak for the number of launches but said that will drop off by 20 to 30 percent in the next five years.
"There was a thing called sequestration," he said. "Satellites aren't being ordered."
When asked how this will impact ULA's large operations, Gass said "we will right-size to the demand that can flourish again." This likely means a 20- to 30-percent reduction in workforce, he said.
About 1,700 of ULA's 3,600 employees are in Colorado.
ULA also released its add-on launch costs if the government decides to grant the company up to 14 more launches. Much to the surprise of observers, each additional launch would cost less than $100 million for the lower-capability rockets.
But SpaceX refutes these figures.
"The Air Force budget for 2015 speaks for itself — in the budget, three single core vehicles add up to $1.212B, or $404M per vehicle. Mr. Gass' statements run counter to budget reality," SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement Wednesday.
"ULA has the most expensive launch services in the world — nearly double that of the next most expensive competitor. When you don't have to compete, there's little incentive to control costs or innovate."
A recent GAO report on annual assessments of major weapons programs puts the program unit cost at $420 million per launch, but that number looks at the whole life of the program not just this block buy.
"We had a 30-year Space Shuttle program and at the end you couldn't get a straight answer on what a single shuttle launch cost," Curry said."I think we are seeing a similar argument here."