Ars Technica’s Eric Berger reports that United Launch Alliance has informed interested parties that it is up for sale, potentially throwing the entire industry upside down.
ULA is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin and is one of the most important launch providers in the industry with its coveted National Security Space Launch contracts. The company held a small monopoly on US commercial launches and DoD missions for years until SpaceX came to town. Since then Elon Musk’s innovations have been able to undercut’s ULA’s prices and lap it in number of launches.
However, they have always played an important role in the industry. With their 100% success rate and the unique capabilities of its Centaur upper stage, ULA has been a pillar to the US Government for reliable and capable launches. ULA being purchased could change that, or it could bring immense talent and experience to a younger or struggling provider.
Who could be buying ULA
Berger suggests several potential buyers for ULA. First was one of the other parties, Boeing or Lockheed, and he points to Lockheed’s increased interest in the commercial launch market in recent years.
Second and third were Jeff Bezos, either through Amazon, Blue Origin, or both. This was my first idea as well as Blue Origin has been desperate to gain access to the NSSL launch contracts. Also, both companies are heavily involved with ULA, Blue Origin sells its BE-4 engine to it for the Vulcan rocket and Amazon has contracts with ULA for its Kuiper satellites. However, Blue Origin is already building a competitor to ULA’s Vulcan called New Glenn, and everything I’ve heard about its progress shows it’s not slowing down, so what would you do with two competing rockets?
Berger also suggests companies like Northrop Grumman, L3Harries, or a private equity firm as potential buyers. Since both Boeing and Lockheed refuse to comment on the report, we will have to wait for more information before better guesses can be made. But I think it’s safe to say it’s going to have to be a rather large company to absorb the legendary launcher.
Who wouldn’t be buying ULA?
Well first let’s get the obvious ones out of the way, NASA couldn’t purchase the company as it’s a government organization and outside of SLS isn’t in the business of operating any rockets. The second is likely SpaceX. While we would all love the meme of Musk buying his competitor, his most recent acquisition is still far from profitable, and will be spending about $1 billion a year in interest. So we can safely rule the Chief Twit out for now.
Outside of that, I would be shocked to see companies like Rocket Lab, Relativity, FireFly, etc attempt a purchase, as much of their capital is being thrown at R&D still.
What does this mean for the industry?
Whoever does end up purchasing ULA, if a purchase even takes place, would become a new powerhouse in the commercial and defense launch sectors. Vulcan can compete with SpaceX toe to toe as well as having the history and ties to continue getting those highly sought-after NASA and DoD payloads.