Tory Bruno, who became chief executive officer of Colorado-based United Launch Alliance in August, spoke with The Decatur Daily last week about the successes and challenges faced by ULA's 1,000-employee Decatur rocket plant.
Bruno said the Decatur area is being considered as a possible site for a factory to produce engines for ULA's Next Generation Launch System, a site he expects to select this year. He also discussed competition from Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, and the effect U.S. tensions with Russia are having on ULA's ability to continue using the Russian RD-180 engine.
Question: What challenges does ULA's Decatur plant face?
Answer: The challenges are twofold. We are in the process of a big campaign to make space much more accessible than it is now, partly by bringing down our recurring launch costs. Decatur is our main factory, and we've been working very hard with that team to find efficiencies in that factory and to shorten our cycle times so we can build the rockets faster.
The other category of challenge is we expect to really open up some new markets and to see our company start a significant amount of growth in just a couple years. Decatur is our factory. We are not leaving. So it's going to have to figure out how to absorb all that work. That's a good challenge to have.
Q: The Air Force recently said it expects to certify Space Exploration Technologies for national security launches this year. How does that affect ULA?
A: It is important relative to assured access. Assured access is a law that says the government has to maintain at all times two different launch systems capable of putting up critical national security payloads upon demand, as priorities arise or change. Up until now, the only available launch vehicles that were certified and capable ... were (ULA's) Atlas and Delta family. So we've been the only way to accomplish that. And for the more difficult missions, we remain still the only way to accomplish it. The new entrants don't have the capability to put those more challenging payloads into the more difficult orbits.
What's changed now, what's new, is that assured access by policy is now to be accomplished by having two different providers who are competing for those missions. That's a new statement of policy from the government on how to implement the law of assured access. Once SpaceX becomes certified, the government is free to compete those missions that we are both capable of and achieving assured access that way. Those competitions started last year. For all the missions after the block buy, the government intended to compete them, and they allowed anyone to submit competitive proposals last year for those first missions, provided they were certified by the time of award. That's why there was some urgency and pressure to get the new entrant certified in time for that.
Now I expect (SpaceX) to get certified, as the Air Force has said, sometime this year. It is difficult to become certified. It's a complicated process, and it should be, because when you're launching that set of satellites, you're talking often about billion dollar, one-of-a-kind assets upon which lives depend.
New launch system
Q: What are ULA's plans for the Next Generation Launch System?
A: We're very excited about developing a new rocket and launch system. The first increment of that will be a new first-stage booster, and we will start flying those in 2019. ... It will probably take us a year or two to accumulate the data to become certified for that vehicle. Then it will become available for all of these missions we have been discussing.
Q: How does Blue Origin fit into the NGLS plans?
A: One of the things policymakers have said is that it's time to move off the Russian engine, the venerable RD-180 that we have underneath the Atlas, and move onto an American engine. I agree. I think now is the time. We went out looking for candidate engines to put underneath our rocket, specifically our Next Generation, and we found that the Blue Origin engine had a couple advantages. First off, it was three years into a development cycle. It takes five to seven years to develop an engine. They were the only folks out there really actively developing a new engine anywhere near our size class. And, with the partnership we put together with Blue Origin and (owner) Jeff Bezos, that engine is largely funded. So we chose that engine. ...
I'm also going to share with you that we have a backup. Engines are tough. Rockets are hard in general, and the engine is probably the most complex thing on a launch vehicle of the nature we build. We have a backup plan. Aerojet Rocketdyne (which has a Huntsville facility) also has come forward with a rocket engine that is very attractive in its technology and its performance. They're a couple of years behind Blue. We're going to bring them both along parallel for at least a couple more years until it's clear. Now I fully expect Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin to succeed, but I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't manage that risk by having this backup plan.
Q: Are there advantages to the NGLS engines being manufactured near the Decatur assembly plant?
A: Blue Origin is off right now with our team doing studies ... on where that facility should be, and I can tell you that Alabama and certainly the Decatur area is within the (area) that's being looked at right now. But I don't know what the answer will be.
Q: When do you have to start building plants for the new engines?
A: They currently have limited production capability at facilities they have now. So they would be able to develop, test and then obtain initial qualification of that engine within the capability they have today. Production for us will take a proper factory, and together we need to select where that factory will be this year, and begin planning for that factory being stood up and established and all the things you have to do to get a factory ready to build proper hardware beginning next year.
Q: Are there advantages to ULA of keeping things close to the existing assembly plant?
A: The logistics of transportation and (operations) — of bringing the different parts of a rocket together to manufacture it — are always made easier with co-location or, if not co-location, short distances to travel. That's generically true for any situation. You have to balance that against the capital investments that are required for very expensive equipment, like test stands for rockets. So you have to consider all of that, along with what kind of partnership you can have with your local city and state governments around those economic development activities, and the whole thing comes together to create the answer. But generically, yes, it's always simpler when everything is nearby.
Q: Are there steps Alabama and Decatur could be taking to make themselves more attractive for NGLS engine production?
A: Absolutely. Alabama has ... been one of the most enlightened states, where the government realizes they can play a role in stimulating economic development. They can work with companies to provide incentives, to provide an educated workforce. There is a whole host of things I have seen Alabama do in the past, and I would be surprised if they would not be involved in conversations about those same things in the future.
Q: What involvement will Decatur have in the commercial crew vehicle, CST-100, scheduled to send astronauts to the International Space Station beginning in 2017?
A: The vehicle that we're going to fly a commercial crew on for Boeing is the Atlas, so Decatur's primary role is going to be providing that launch vehicle upon which we will set the capsule, put the people in and take them up. Along with that — and not necessarily driven just by commercial crew — we are also looking to thicken our content, to bring a little bit more work inside our own factory. Where we have elements of supply chain that are not performing well or struggling or seeing any kind of significant cost growth, then we have the capability ourselves to manufacture that hardware. We're going to look to bring that in-house. The most likely landing place for most of the things that would come in-house is going to be Decatur.
Q: ULA's Atlas engine is the Russian RD-180, which has become embroiled in trade sanctions imposed by the U.S. government and Russia. Is it possible to produce the RD-180 domestically?
A: In theory, we certainly could domestically produce RD-180s if we wanted to do that. We are in fact looking at that possibility because, although the RD-180s will become banned after a certain point of time for national security space missions, there are no restrictions on using them for NASA or other civil or commercial applications.
Q: Is it possible that a deal could be structured that would broaden the possible uses of domestically produced RD-180s?
A: It depends on the nature of the specific arrangement that would be set up. We would have to go back to the law and compare that to what the Russian government was willing to do. It's not a given that simply producing them in the United States under a Russian license would comply with the law.
Q: Is it possible that the ULA rocket planned for Boeing's commercial crew vehicle would use an engine other than the RD-180?
A: I can tell you that in our proposal to Boeing, we had to propose the rocket that we currently have and know how to build today and know how to price, and that was the Atlas. Now we've also shared our plans for the Next Generation with Boeing and told them that, if they get to a point in time when they would consider or want to switch over, that we would be happy to be in that conversation with them.
Q: Has Decatur been good for ULA?
A: Decatur has been wonderful for ULA. Not only is it a great factory with a lot of heritage — we've been there a number of years — but the workforce we enjoy down there is fabulous. These folks are very skilled at what they do. Just as important, they are very dedicated. They take these missions very seriously. Lives depend on the spacecrafts that we put up into orbit, whether it's GPS so first responders can get to the right place or earth observations so you can handle forest fires and floods, or whether it's making sure that troops have the intelligence they need and can call for help when they need it. These are pretty important missions. Important to our country, and they save lives. The workforce that we have in Decatur, they get that.
When we build these rockets, they are hand-crafted. It takes a great deal of skill and experience to put them together. In rocketry, you are always pushing the envelope of physics. Mother Nature does not like this stuff to happen. When you light that thing and it has a million or 2 million pounds of thrust, and within a few minutes it's doing 15,000 miles an hour, there's not a lot of margin for error when we fabricate it. The men and women we get down there in Decatur, that work in that factory, are just the best. I have no intention of going anywhere else.