United Launch Alliance (ULA) has announced a new website that enables customers to shop for launch services and sets standard price transparency. It also provides insight into reliability, schedule assurance, and performance of the Atlas V launch vehicle.
The website, called RocketBuilder (http://www.rocketbuilder.com/), starts off with a basic Atlas V configuration and enables customers to configure a launch vehicle based on payload and orbit, and to add additional service options as needed. The basic flight, priced at $109 million, includes a 4-meter fairing with a payload up to 7,715 kilograms from Florida to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO). Costs increase if different orbits or heavier payloads are required. These increases are all transparent.
While SpaceX started the trend toward more transparency on launch costs, it only advertises a starting price – it does not disclose the added costs for different orbits, heavier payloads, or additional services.
ULA’s RocketBuilder, on the other hand, does. It also, however, makes some assumptions that may cloud a final price. That’s because along with the purchase price, the site displays “ULA Added Value.” This feature shows values for Atlas V reliability, schedule certainty, and orbit optimization, the total of which are subtracted from the purchase price to create a “cost after added value.” Fortunately for the user, these assumptions can be customized.
Terms and disclaimers also apply to the cost. For example, ULA indicates that use of the website does not constitute a sale, or a formal proposal. Launch vehicle disposal, rideshare capabilities and/or unique orbit deliveries are not listed. Satellite operators must obtain their own safety approvals. Multi-launch discounts are not advertised. What’s more, because the cost of other services required by the U.S. government is added on, RocketBuilder may only be useful for commercial launches. Finally, website assumptions are based on ULA’s past performance, and like the phrase required by the financial services industry, “past performance is not an indicator of future results.”
Despite these qualifications, ULA’s new website is a major step forward in the transparency of the launch industry. For years, prices were a well-kept secret, determined after negotiation between launch operator and customer. SpaceX made the first step in improving transparency. Now ULA is taking it to the next level. That said, ULA’s prices are still higher than its competitors’. It remains to be seen if its increased transparency will give ULA an advantage in the marketplace.
The new website also demonstrates the increasing level of competition in the industry. The commercial industry has long been dominated by two incumbent launch vehicle operators: International Launch Services (ILS) and Arianespace. Today, new entrants such as SpaceX are shaking up the industry with low prices. In addition, ULA, China Great Wall Industries, the Indian Space Research Organization, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are all actively competing to carry commercial payloads to orbit.
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