United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, is poised to showcase its record of reliability with the launch Wednesday of a satellite for the U.S. government. It comes a few days after a satellite launched by rival SpaceX went missing.
United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing created more than a decade ago to launch sensitive satellites for the Pentagon and intelligence community, has long been under fire from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the tenacious upstart that plowed its way into the market by waging war in Washington, D.C.
For years, Musk proclaimed that SpaceX could save taxpayers millions by offering the Pentagon launches for far less than its chief rival. ULA, meanwhile, maintained that responsibility for national security satellites that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and help guide precision bombs and conduct surveillance should not just go to the lowest bidder.
Now with a launch for the National Reconnaissance Office scheduled for Wednesday, ULA is again poised to showcase its record of reliability with more than 100 consecutive launches without a failure.
The launch comes as reports indicate that a highly classified satellite launched by SpaceX on Sunday has gone missing and may have suffered a failure once it reached space.
Known only by a code name, Zuma, the satellite was launched Sunday evening by SpaceX on its Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The mission is so secretive that it is not known which government agency commissioned the launch, what the satellite cost or what it would do once in orbit. The launch appeared to go smoothly, and SpaceX cheered a successful liftoff and then the touch down of its first-stage booster back on land.
The Air Force’s 45th Space Wing also congratulated the company in a tweet: “What an incredible way to start off 2018 w/the world’s 1st successful launch and land of this year!”
As word spread on Monday that something may have happened to the Zuma satellite, SpaceX maintained that nothing went wrong with its Falcon 9 rocket, saying a review of the data showed it “performed nominally.”
Gwynne Shotwell, the chief operating officer of SpaceX, issued a strongly worded statement on Tuesday that placed the blame elsewhere.
“After review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night,” Shotwell said. SpaceX’s review so far indicates that “no design, operational or other changes are needed,” she said. The company doesn’t anticipate any impact on its upcoming launch schedule, including a Falcon 9 mission in three weeks.
SpaceX declined to comment further, citing the mission’s classified status, as did Northrup Grumman, which manufactured the Zuma satellite and hired SpaceX as the launch contractor.
“There’s a long tradition of not commenting on problems with classified missions, unless it blows up in such a way that everyone can see it,” John Logsdon, founder and former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told Bloomberg News.
“There will be at least three investigations. SpaceX will follow through to make sure they were not part of the problem,” he said. “There will be an internal investigation at Northrup Grumman. And the sponsoring agency will do an investigation. No matter what Zuma was, it was expensive. A billion dollars is not out of the ballpark.”
But even if SpaceX’s Falcon 9 performed perfectly, it is not a good time for the company, founded by Musk in 2002, to have something happen to such an important payload.
“They’re concerned any failure might hinder their ability to get future national security launch contracts,” said Brian Weeden, the director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, a space-policy think tank. “National security payloads are a very important potential market for SpaceX.”
For years, the company has been in a heated battle with ULA over lucrative contracts to launch national security payloads, long seen by Musk as a key source of revenue. SpaceX is also under contract from NASA to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, and it maintains that the first test flights with humans on board could happen as soon as this year.
For nearly a decade, ULA had a monopoly on Pentagon launches. In 2014, SpaceX sued the Air Force arguing that it should be able to compete for the contracts. In 2015, the parties settled, and SpaceX was granted the certification that allowed it to bid. Since then, SpaceX has won two of three competitively bid launches.
As they battled with SpaceX, ULA’s executives launched a “results over rhetoric” campaign, highlighting the company’s long heritage in space.
At the time, ULA’s then-CEO accused SpaceX of trying to “cut corners” and “taking a dangerous approach.” Under mounting pressure from SpaceX, he was fired, and ULA’s new CEO, Tory Bruno, vowed to “literally transform” the company in order to compete with Musk — and he also continued to champion ULA’s track record of successful launches.
SpaceX, meanwhile, had two high-profile incidents. In 2015, a rocket blew up while carrying cargo to the space station. Then in 2016, another rocket exploded while being fueled ahead of an engine test. No one was hurt in either explosion.
In both cases, the company was grounded while it investigated the cause of those problems.