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United Launch Alliance

by Eric Peterson on May 17, 2015, 10:31 am MDT

www.ulalaunch.com

Centennial, Colorado

Founded: 2006

A joint venture of  Boeing Defense, Space & Security and Lockheed Martin Space Systems

Employees: about 3,400 (including about 1,500 in Colorado and 1,000 at its facilities in Alabama and Texas)

COO Dan Collins says additive manufacturing and supply chain management are key to making "America's ride to space" just as reliable but even more cost-effective.

Nearly a decade after its formation, Lockheed and Boeing's rocket-building baby continues to grow and evolve. Its next big task: to supply the next iteration of launch vehicles to the national security and civil markets.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) has 13 launches slated for 2015 -- including a May 20 launch for the U.S. Air Force -- and 16 or 17 thus far on the calendar for 2016.

"We're busy," says Collins. "It's great. It's keeping the engineers hopping and keeping our factory humming along."

The company currently makes Delta and Atlas V and Delta II and IV rockets. Next up: the just-unveiled Vulcan, slated for its first launch in 2019.

"We're really charged with maintaining America's assured access to space at a substantially lower cost" than the pre-ULA days, he adds.

And the company is hitting its targets, he adds. "We're very proud of our perfect launch record," says Collins, noting that the cost of a launch has come down about 50 percent in real dollars in the nine years since ULA came to be. The Air Force recently commended the company for saving it $4.5 billion over the course of an ongoing seven-year contract.

"I really think we hit a home run," says Collins on delivering on ULA's initial promise.

There's a two-year lead time between procurement and launch. "In those two years, we turn the factory on," says Collins. Aluminum stock comes in to the plant in Decatur, Alabama, where a workforce of about 800 employees treat it to survive the rigors of launch, then form it into into the cylinders that make up the different stages of a rocket.

After much welding and testing, ULA loads the stages onto a ship in the Gulf of Mexico for transport to the launch site. "For Cape Canaveral in Florida, that takes about a week," says Collins. But the trip to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, ULA's second launch site, takes longer -- "about a month," he adds. Final testing, preparation, and fueling takes place at the launch site.

"We're monitoring the health of the rocket all the way through," says Collins. "About 10 seconds before liftoff, we hand everything over to the computers. Once we let it go, it's autonomous."

He adds: "They fly on their own, and they fly really well on their own."

Collins praises the collaborative economic development strategies in both Colorado and Alabama. "For a design center in the aerospace business, Colorado's just a terrific location," he says, touting employment in the sector that's second only to California, with the most jobs of any state per capita. "There's a critical mass of aerospace capability in the area. That brings with it the ability to interact with other companies, to learn from each other, and partner with other companies."

Collins thinks Colorado has room to grow as an aerospace manufacturing center. "There's a great support system here with terrific colleges and universities as well as a skilled workforce."

Then there's the Vulcan. The next-generation rocket is scheduled for commercial liftoff in 2019, powered by a domestically produced BE-4 engine from Blue Origin.

"We've focused on making great gains in additive manufacturing," Collins says. One additive-printed component with 140 parts can be replaced by an additive-printed part with about 10 parts, and it follows that the Vulcan will leverage additive manufacturing "a great deal."

The rocket could crack the $100 million barrier, about half the price of an Atlas V and a quarter that of a heavy-duty Delta rocket.

"It's pretty exciting stuff," says Collins. "It'll serve as the foundation for the next couple of decades."

Challenges: "We know how to do high-reliability launch the way we do it today," Collins says. "The challenge is to figure out how to do it more efficiently with the same high reliability." Noting that ULA has cut its labor costs in half since 2006, he says the company hopes to do the same with the supply chain in the coming years."Sixty percent of our cost sits in that supply chain. We're really looking at changing how that's done."

Opportunities: Civil transportation. Collins expects a lull in national security launches to hit by 2020, then an increase in about 2025. To fill the gap, ULA needs to to grow its commercial launches. It recently closed on a deal to provide commercial crew transportation for Boeing.

Additive manufacturing is another opportunity. "That's been a concentration in Colorado," he adds, noting that design and low-volume manufacturing takes place in the state. "How do we embrace that technology and learn to design around it?"

Needs: "To be aware of the markets we're serving and looking to where they are going to be," says Collins.

[Editor's note: photo below of United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket set to launch the Air Force's AFSPC-5 mission from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL., Wednesday, May 20.]

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