United Launch Alliance vs. SpaceX

The night sky is dark, a stark contrast against the massive orange launch vehicle sitting on the pad, ready for liftoff. Announcing the countdown of the clock and a ball of fire rolls up the vehicle as the three massive engines ignite, throwing the vehicle up into the sky. A perfect or “nominal” performance places the parker space probe right on the trajectory it needs to be in order to speed toward the sun.

Looking at the story of the Parker Probe, we see the makings of one of the most fascinating and interesting missions since we visited Pluto. The spacecraft was launched aboard one of the largest rockets currently available… but it seems to be a dying brand. The Delta IV heavy is an impressive, but aging launch vehicle that still has a lot of capability. Newer launch vehicles are starting to come in, like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) isn’t doing much to remain competitive.

Go watch a broadcasted launch from SpaceX and then watch the Parker Probe launch, you’ll be wishing you were watching SpaceX again. SpaceX broadcasts are streaming on YouTube with dedicated hosts describing events, showing live camera footage of the vehicle in space all while piping in the audio from a crowd of cheering and excited employees who bring a dimension to the launch that ULA flights lack. If you haven’t seen the booster landings on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch, go watch it, it is one of the most exhilarating and impressive things I’ve ever watched.

Now let's go watch the Parker spacecraft launch. The announcer is just a controller calling out that the vehicle is passing through Mach 1 and maximum dynamic pressure. While I went to school for this sort of thing and know what Max Q is most people need a little context… none is given. The entire launch is a single view from the ground, a controller telling everyone the vehicle is “down the middle of the track” (once again needs a little context, this means on the target path to orbit), and topped off with a lagged animation of stage separation. Little explanation of events, little excitement at all, and in stark contrast to how SpaceX handles their broadcasts. When you see the difference in the two streams, you can see almost immediately that United Launch Alliance feels stuffy, old and behind the times.

Beyond just the outright appeal of the two companies, ULA just cannot compete with SpaceX, it is struggling to remain a launch choice at all. SpaceX had a massively successful first flight of the Falcon Heavy which outclasses the Delta IV that flew the Parker space probe toward the sun. Look at the price tag though and you would be surprised to see that SpaceX blows the Delta IV heavy out of the water. You could fly three times on the Falcon Heavy ($150 million) for the price of a single flight on a Delta IV ($400+ million) and that doesn’t even account for the reduced price of reflown launch vehicles from SpaceX that would shave off millions.

While ULA is starting to make strides toward a new vehicle that is reusable, we must ask the question of whether ULA is too late to the game. We have seen little to nothing of the new design, let alone real ability to land hardware back on the ground. Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, is successfully launching and recovering suborbital flights with his company Blue Origin. ULA was complacent for so long that it appears they have allowed not only SpaceX to speed on by, but other start-ups are already ahead of them in the development game with more on their heels.

This may be the start of a space revolution and United Launch Alliance may be left on the side of the road.