Delta 2 Rockets to Remain Competitive Until 2015

United Launch Alliance(ULA) has enough unsold Delta 2 rockets in inventory to meet NASA's forecasteddemand through at least 2015 and could wait until 2012 to decide whether torestart production of the reliable but increasingly expensive workhorse, a topcompany executive said.

Dan Collins, ULA's chiefoperating officer, also said the company is considering ways to reduce theDelta 2's price tag as well as developing a less powerful, lower-cost variantof its larger Atlas 5 or Delta 4 rockets. Speaking June 25 here at a meeting ofthe National Research Council's Space Studies Board, he said ULA of Denver hasno intention of ceding the medium-lift launch market it has dominated fordecades to new rockets being developed Orbital Sciences Corp. and SpaceExploration Technologies (SpaceX).

"There's been a lotof talk about [how] we need to go fill the gap [with] the demise of Delta 2,"Collins told the board. "Part of my message for you today is we don't knowof any gap. We have Delta 2s in inventory that are unsold. We plan oncontinuing to sell those. With the change in the requirements that we will seeas the [U.S. Air Force Medium Launch Vehicle 3] program goes away, we areadjusting Delta 2 and bringing the price down."

The Air Force has beenusing the Delta 2 since 1989, primarily to launch GPS navigation satellites.With the last of the current-generation GPS satellites slated to lift offaboard a Delta 2 later this year, ULA's long-running Medium Launch Vehiclecontract is coming to an end.

An internal studyconducted by NASA in 2007 concluded that Delta 2 launch prices, alreadyhovering in the $80 million range, likely would soar once the Air Forceabandons the program in favor of manifesting future generations of GPSsatellites aboard ULA's larger Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets. NASA has been theother big Delta 2 customer in recent years.

The NASA study, conductedby the agency's in-house rocket buyers, recommended following the Air Force'slead by phasing out Delta 2 and shifting more payloads to Atlas 5 or Delta 4until a more affordable medium-lift launcher comes along.

While the Air Force hasbeen the anchor customer for Delta 2 since the beginning, Collins said theservice's abandonment of the program gives ULA the opportunity to reduce costswithout compromising reliability.

"There have beenrequirements in the government mission set that have driven cost," Collinssaid, citing as an example the Air Force's insistence that the Delta 2 be keptready to launch within 40 days of call up.

"That drivessignificant cost into a program," Collins said. "For instance, itdrives having two launch pads at Cape Canaveral. We will not continue tooperate two launch pads."

Collins said dropping the40-day call up requirement also would permit ULA to "significantly lower"the number of people it needs on hand to launch Delta 2.

"So we will seesignificant changes in the cost structure on the Delta 2 with a significantinventory to continue flying," Collins said. "We plan on beingexceptionally competitive in the medium market for the foreseeable future."

ULA has "around halfa dozen" unsold Delta 2 rockets on hand, a sufficient inventory, Collinstold the board, to meet NASA's scaled-back demand through 2015.

"We don't see anyneed to guess what the market is going to be in 2016," Collins said, lateradding, "When people actually start having programs of record you canstart at the time bringing the right vehicle to market."

If by 2012, NASA andother potential customers are forecasting a combined eight to 10 mediumlaunches a year beyond 2015, Collins said, ULA could financially justifyrestarting Delta 2 production. But if forecasted demand is only four to sevenlaunches annually, Collins said, ULA would be more likely go after that marketwith a vehicle that combines a new low-cost upper stage with an Atlas 5 orDelta 4 booster core.

Collins said themedium-lift launch market will be extremely competitive for at least the nextseveral years.

"There are sixlaunchers out there trying to split a market of about six launches a year,"Collins said. "We're all going to be out trying to make a living in thismarket and it's going to be difficult."

Collins told the boardULA is determined to stay in the medium market and make Delta 2, or itssuccessor, competitive with the price point OrbitalSciences is shooting for with its planned Taurus 2 rocket.

"We think there's apremium that comes with the experience and reliability record [of Delta 2], butthere's only so much that premium can demand, so we need to get down in thatsame area," Collins said. "Can we get all the way there? I hope so.But if not I think we can get pretty close."

ULA does not discloseDelta 2 pricing, but Collins said NASA pays the company less than what theagency requires its programs to budget for a Delta 2 launch.

Appearing alongsideCollins were executives from Orbital Sciences and SpaceX who gave the boardupdates on their efforts to field Delta 2-class competitors.

Robert T. Richards, vicepresident of Orbital's Launch Systems Group, said Orbital and its investors areprepared to spend $200 million developing Taurus 2, a medium-class rocket thecompany expects to launch from Virginia's eastern shore in December 2010 aspart of a NASA-funded demonstration. He said Orbital also has hardware inproduction for a second rocket that could fly a few months earlier if thecompany finds a customer that needs to launch a medium-sized satellite then.

He said Orbital ofDulles, Va., is aiming to offer Delta 2-class performance at a lower price, oraround $65 million a launch.

"There are someedges of the envelope where a Delta 2 Heavy might have a little more performance,but essentially you should think of it as a Delta 2," Richards said.

ULA used a Delta 2 Heavyto loft NASA's Gamma-rayLarge Area Telescope into orbit June 11 from from Cape Canaveral Air ForceStation, Fla. The 4,230-kilogram spacecraft required a Delta 2 augmented withnine strap-on boosters.

Hawthorne, Calif.-basedSpaceX, the rocket start-up created six years ago by PayPal co-founder ElonMusk, aims to price its Falcon 9 rocket significantly below Taurus 2.

SpaceX, like Orbital, isgetting financial assistance from NASA under the agency's Commercial OrbitalTransportation Services program.

Larry Williams, SpaceXvice president of strategic relations, told the Space Studies Board that thecompany is offering Falcon 9 launches for $36.75 million to $57.75 milliondepending on the size of the payload and desired destination.

International Space Station-boundcargo flights involving the company's reusable Dragon capsule, Williams said,will cost between $80 million and $100 million

Williams said SpaceXbelieves it can deliver on its promise of lower launch prices by taking the "Wal-Martapproach," which he characterized as doing hundreds of things 1 percentcheaper than the competition rather than trying to do one thing 90 percent cheaper.

SpaceX has conducted twolaunches of the smaller Falcon 1 rocket to date, neither of which succeeded inreaching orbit. A third Falcon 1 launch had been tentatively slated for June,but Williams said that attempt has been pushed off until late July or earlyAugust due to "a bit of a range issue" at the Kwajalein missilerange, where the company has a launch pad.

The firstFalcon 9 rocket is expected to arrive at Cape Canaveral by the end of the yearfor an early 2009 launch for a U.S. government customer SpaceX says it is notpermitted to name.

  • Video Player: Delta GPS in 1997
  • Video Player: Falcon 1's Second Flight
  • VIDEO: SpaceX's Dragon Capsule in Space

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Editor-in-Chief, SpaceNews

Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.