Sat. Jan 28th, 2023
One of the pivotal moments in the rocket wars came in 2014, when United Launch Alliance CEO Mike Gass took on SpaceX's Elon Musk before a Senate committee.
Enlarge / One of the pivotal moments in the rocket wars came in 2014, when United Launch Alliance CEO Mike Gass took on SpaceX’s Elon Musk before a Senate committee.

Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It started like so many tiffs in 2017: on Twitter. SpaceX just had a near-perfect first half of the year. Ten launches. Two returns. Zero accidents. Speaking to his 11 million followers, Elon Musk couldn’t resist taking a closer look at his old rival in the US launch industry, United Launch Alliance.

“It’s worth noting that Boeing/Lockheed get a billion dollar annual subsidy even if they don’t launch anything. Not SpaceX,” Musk said tweeted. In comparison, this may not seem too inflammatory for the social media platform. But within the stately rocket world, Musk had just trashed ULA, the joint launch venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Subsidy is a trigger word often used by Musk in this battle, implying that ULA cannot compete without government support. So it didn’t take long for ULA’s chief executive, Tory Bruno, to answer with his own answer tweet“Sorry. That’s just not true. There is no ‘billion dollar subsidy.’ Amazing that this myth persists.” (This myth may persist because it is true, at least in part.)

This public exchange between the chief executives of two billion dollar rocket companies highlights the extraordinary competition that has unfolded in the US launch industry over the past twelve years. Unlike the space race of the 1960s, this collision involved companies, not countries. They’ve fought in Congress, the courts, and on the launch pad, revolutionizing the aerospace industry.

A decade ago, the smart money was on United Launch Alliance and its owners, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the federal government’s two largest contractors. In 2015 alone, these two behemoths performed $50 billion worth of work for American taxpayers. They had been building American missiles for decades. In the other corner was a Silicon Valley computer guy who partied with mariachi bands and dreamed of colonizing Mars.

ULA's Tory Bruno, far left, watches as President Trump signs an executive order in June to restore the National Space Council.  Musk was invited, but did not attend.
Enlarge / ULA’s Tory Bruno, far left, watches as President Trump signs an executive order in June to restore the National Space Council. Musk was invited, but did not attend.

NASA

Sometimes the competition was bizarre. About a year ago, after SpaceX lost its Falcon 9 rocket during a launch pad test, there were murky allegations of a sniper on the roof of a nearby ULA facility when the booster exploded. SpaceX denied making such an accusation.

Although it had nothing to do with the accident, ULA still tried to capitalize on the misstep. Just three months after SpaceX’s catastrophic explosion, ULA launched a new website, the “Rocket Builder”. It praised the reliability of ULA’s boosters compared to that of one company that kept blowing things up.

Despite the mishaps and long odds, Musk has largely won against the two titans of American aerospace. Today, its Falcon 9 rocket is less expensive and regularly outpaces the ULA fleet in commercial and government satellite launch bids. Musk has continued to innovate, and if SpaceX succeeds in bringing reusable spaceflight to market, he is poised to dominate the global launch market.

However, all this does not mean that the war has ended. Major federal awards are currently being offered to develop new launch systems, and Bruno has been pressuring ULA to be as competitive as possible, cutting jobs and pushing new technology. The future missile wars will probably only get more interesting from here.

By akfire1

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