] In part of our interview with Tory Bruno, the United Launch Alliance, we were talked about the company's efforts to develop the Vulcan missile, Centaur upper stage and other projects on the Colorado-based rocket builder. In part two, below, we asked Bruno about the company's cooperation with the new space company Blue Origin and its ongoing rivalry with SpaceX.
These two relatively new launch companies have taken different approaches to the United Launch Alliance, founded by elderly spacecraft companies in 2006 to provide national security launches for the US government. Blue Origin has sought to work with ULA, and now an agreement in 2014 to provide the BE-4 rocket engines for the Vulcan booster. But the companies are also competing with friendly greetings, as Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket will also contribute to national security launches, and there are some overlaps in commercial market interests.
SpaceX has taken a significantly more confrontational attitude towards the United Launch Alliance from the beginning, claiming to stop the formation of the ULA in 2005 and fighting for government activities for years, both for military and civilian missions.
Ars Technica: Let's talk about the decision to buy BE-4 engines from Blue Origin. How difficult was it to convince your stakeholders that this is something ULA should consider?
Tory Bruno : It took some time. It did not arrive quickly or whimsically. We knew we needed a new engine because the government told us, OK, we're done with the RD-180 engine. It was right for the country at one time, but now it is not. We examined (I personally participated in it) every engine that was out there – engines that existed, engines that people had drawn on napkins. And we looked at everything. We had all come and short us and the rest of it. So that was a lot of data and it was a pretty thorough review. I would say that most of the time was involved in doing the homework so that we could limit our list of choices. Really, the economy and schedule came into this. There were other engines that were quite good, but they did not look like they would very well support the mandate for the RD-180 to be retired.
And then we had to build a business case. Unlike many of the new players you are talking about today, we are not a start-up company that is investing capital; We are a mature business. We have to close a business case on Vulcan itself. So where our strategic partners [ Editor's Note: This is a reference to Blue Origin ] brought both investment and schedule, it was a fairly important factor. It became clear what the right choice was and we arrived at it with our stakeholders. Now, the next part of it shared with people who are really our customers, the technical risks involved in moving to a novel, a new propellant, and how to address and retire. It became a lot easier when we started to have many test data. And when we moved up to scale and put in a lot of minutes on the engine, it went pretty well out of all the worries.
Did the cost and time benefits of the BE-4 engine reveal any concerns you had about competing against Blue Origin with your own engine?
Yes, that's true. You report it so that you know that room launches, and rooms in general, are another type of industry. It's small. There are not so many of us. We know each other. We compete. We are in each other's supply chains all at the same time. Northrop Grumman is no different. They give me solid rocket engines, and it's really not that unusual.
What I'm looking for in an important strategic partnership like that, is really two things. I look to see that there are some differentiation regarding parts of the market that we are going to focus on. I also look for a common need, so we both need one another in a way. The BE-4 engine is a good example of it. I need a motor. They need the production volume that our launch model brings. There are many BE-4's on a new Glenn, but there is no intention of being so many New Glenns because of their model and their plans to reuse it. Together, we make the engine affordable so that our different markets that we are really centered on can work for us. So they need us as much as they need them.
And then we put together a good deal; You know good fences make good neighbors. Long-term price agreements, and preferred customer orders, and such things so that they know they have a production flow that they can count on, and we know we'll have engines on time and what they'll cost.
Do you have any interest in flying personally at New Shepard? Was that part of the BE-4 agreement, do you get six comp-d-seats?
No, we did not. Sin. I'd love to ride it. I do not know what it will cost, but I feel that I can not afford it.
I'm curious when SpaceX first came to your radar.
I've been making rockets my whole career, so the moment they started flying, I was aware of them. I have seen them all that time while driving my business to another company.
So when they started flying the Falcon 1 rocket, were you aware?
From then on did you think they should come to where they are today?
So when they still fly Falcon 1, I think the jury was out. When switching to Falcon 9, I thought OK, these guys have the potential to be a vendor in this marketplace, especially when they began to receive significant NASA contracts that would give them the resources to develop their ability. So yes, I took them seriously almost from day one.
I'm not going to pull you into a discussion about reuse. I understand different business issues, call for different plans. But when you saw them land on a boat, the first time saw it as a aviation sector and thought it was quite cool? Or were you like, "Wow, they just landed on a boat"?
The first. You can not see it and think it was a cool thing to see. It was a very nice project. I'm pretty sure I sent Gwynne [Shotwell, SpaceX President] flowers and congratulated her on that achievement. I personally worked on X-33 VentureStar. Damn, sorry we could not get those guys to work.
Anyway, I thought there was really something to look at. You know we have a different approach to reuse, driven solely by our assessment of the economy and the lack of our need for a vertical landing and launching model for Mars. There is nothing in our equation. They have a different problem than we try to solve. I remain confident of our model, and therefore we stick to our approach.
Are the good neighbors at Cape Canaveral and the Vandenberg Air Force Base ?
(Bruno laughs) They are definitely our neighbors and we are working on – the 45th. Space Wing does a great job of keeping everyone fair and aligned. It's hard for them, I think, because there are many launches taking place in Cape Town right now, and SpaceX burns down the high demand they had built up in about five years or so. And we really appreciate the fact that the Air Force does the right thing.
I'm not sure you want to comment on this, but it seems to me that if you really wanted to open up the solar system for exploration in a cheap way, with a powerful rocket to reach many different destinations, You use a Falcon Heavy with a Centaur Upper Stage. They can get a lot of money for LEO cheap. You have a really high-performing upper scene. Have there ever been discussions about it?
Actually no. I have never had a conversation with Gwynne or anyone on her team to share it. I do not know I've been asked by any other third party either.
Let's say you have my job and you are a reporter in this industry. My interest is getting things right, but also really telling the readers what's really going on. How do I do my job better?
Oh, you're asking me to tell you how to do your job better? I have never been asked that question. Well, you know, when I look at a journalist, I say that this person is a very good journalist if they have taken the time to do the survey. As you ask me questions, you will ask other people the questions that might also know something about it and see where the truth lies. And you want to talk to my competitor and see what they are saying.
I think it's a big challenge for you now, which did not exist years ago when I first started interacting with the press. The news cycles are very short now. You must show stories quickly. So when you can do your research and be fairly balanced, I think it's hard work, it takes effort and I respect it. I never expect a publication or reporter to be my marketing staff. When I read a story and there's something that's not free about us there, if that's accurate, I do not care at all.