clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

United Launch Alliance unveils website that lets you price out a rocket ‘like building a car’

Know how much launching that satellite is really going to cost you

An Atlas V rocket launching NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.
ULA

This morning, United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno unveiled a new website that allows satellite makers to figure out what it will really cost to launch a vehicle on one of ULA’s rockets. It’s like going to “Ford or Chevy and building your car,” Bruno said, except in the end you wind up with a more than $100 million rocket that can take cargo to space. And just like checking out on Amazon, the website allows you to save your rocket and submit it to ULA to start the process of finalizing a launch contract.

The site, called RocketBuilder.com, looks to be ULA’s attempt to further infiltrate the commercial satellite market, after launching mostly government satellites and NASA missions for the past decade. Bruno says the site is meant to provide an “unprecedented level of transparency” to commercial customers about the true cost of launching a satellite with ULA. “The sticker price on the rocket is just the tip of the iceberg,” Bruno said at a press conference this morning in Washington, DC. “There is a whole host of other costs.” The site is supposed to give potential customers an idea of what those costs might be.

Rocket Builder allows you to pick when you want to launch and what orbit you want your satellite to go to. And then, depending on its destination and how big the satellite is, the site will help you calculate the size of your payload fairing — the nose cone that encases the satellite on the top of the rocket — as well as how many additional boosters you’re going to need for thrust. Customers even have the option of picking customizable “service options,” which include adding an onboard video system to the rocket, or conducting “expanded mission rehearsals.” There’s even the option of purchasing a VIP experience, where you can invite 100 customers or investors to come watch the launch as a marketing tool.

So if I wanted to send a hypothetical 5,000-pound satellite into geostationary transfer orbit, I’m going to need ULA’s simplest Atlas V rocket (no extra boosters required). In this scenario, I also splurged for the “Signature” service option, which includes perks like shock testing, so my total cost comes out to $119 million.

My rocket! Now I just need to find $119 million...
ULA/RocketBuilder.com

The site also calculates the “ULA added value,” which is determined by ULA’s reliability, schedule certainty, and orbit optimization, according to the company. After 113 successful launches with no failures, ULA claims its rockets are more reliable than other US vehicles on the market, and that it can even take satellites to a better orbit than expected, helping to extend a spacecraft’s mission. By clicking on “Customize” next to “ULA Added Value,” the site breaks down how much customers are saving if they stick with ULA. That value is supposedly calculated by reduced insurance rates, the amount of revenue satellite operators make by launching on time, and the extended lifetime of a satellite.

“An estimated launch slip of just three months can cost a customer upwards of $12 million in lost revenue and $18 million of deferred revenue,” said Bruno in a statement. “ULA’s average launch date slip has been less [than] two weeks for the past five years.”

So for my hypothetical satellite, the net cost of the rocket is really $54 million, according to ULA.

ULA’s ‘added value’ breakdown.
ULA/RocketBuilder.com

The entirety of this “added value” section seems to be a not-too-subtle dig at the company’s competitors, notably SpaceX. SpaceX has been an attractive option for commercial satellite operators, since the company offers much cheaper rockets than ULA, starting at $62 million. However, SpaceX has suffered two major rocket failures within the past two years, which have caused delays in the company’s launch schedule. ULA is trying to make the case that its rockets may be more expensive, but customers actually save money in the long run by launching on the Atlas V because of the company’s reliability.

“Nobody really chooses to have low reliability, to blow their rocket up, or to be late,” said Bruno. “It’s something they strive to avoid, but it’s very difficult to obtain.”

Of course there is something the SpaceX offers that you can’t find on RocketBuilder.com: the ability to land the rocket once it has launched to space.

It does look like ULA is making moves to lower the cost of its rockets, though. Bruno noted that just a few years ago, the simplest version of the Atlas V rocket sold for $184 million for one launch. Now the baseline price for that Atlas V is $109 million, he says. “That is a result of an entire company transformation we’ve been going through,” he said, claiming ULA has entered into “strategic partnerships” in its supply chain and streamlined some of its operations. ULA also receives a good chunk of money from the US government for launching Air Force satellites, so that may factor into commercial pricing somewhat.

Rocket Builder is only intended for commercial customers, and isn’t meant to estimate the cost of launching government satellites. Those types of launches typically cost between $30 to $80 million more, according to Bruno, since the government may need extra things from ULA like classified facilities. That’s why the site doesn’t include pricing for ULA’s other rocket, the Delta IV, since it’s not available for launching commercial satellites. However, ULA is working on a brand-new type of rocket called the Vulcan, which is supposed to have elements of reusability and start launching in 2019. Pricing for the Vulcan is supposed to be available on RocketBuilder.com late next year.