Spaceflight Insider

ULA debuts custom rocket configurator with focus on total cost benefit

Atlas V launch with GOES-R

An Atlas V launches the GOES-R weather satellite. Photo Credit: Michael McCabe / SpaceFlight Insider

In an effort to better educate potential customers on the true cost of launch services and the associated upside inherent in United Launch Alliance’s reputation and record, the company has developed a website with the aim to showcase the total cost benefit that comes with selecting ULA as a launch provider.

For those wondering how much ULA would charge to launch an 11,000-pound (5,000-kilogram) spacecraft on an Earth-escape trajectory, replete with a full spectrum of services, wonder no more.

Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO, held a press conference on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016, to unveil the RocketBuilder website, and to describe what it means for the company and their prospective customers.

“The value of a launch is a lot more than its price tag,” said Bruno in a release issued by the company. “Through our RocketBuilder website, customers are now empowered with pricing information that can be used to make decisions during their spacecraft development process, potentially helping customers keep program costs down. In addition, customers are able to build a rocket based on the needs they input, their spacecraft specifications and mission requirements.”

An Atlas V 541 model, built with ULA's RocketBuilder custom configurator. Model courtesy of ULA.

An Atlas V 541 model built with ULA’s RocketBuilder custom configurator. Image Credit: ULA

In an age when people are accustomed to “building” their dream car online before purchase, a configurator like RocketBuilder may seem to be an expected offering. However, that is most decidedly not the case. While a potential customer may be able to find online the cost to launch a payload on another company’s rocket, Bruno posits that price tag doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Comparing not only the cost of a mission, but the important value items such as schedule certainty is critical for customers, especially our commercial customers,” Bruno said.

Though not mentioning any competitor by name, it’s evident ULA is marketing themselves as the smart, if not initially cheaper, choice to deliver payloads to space and begin generating revenue. With their prime competitor SpaceX offering a considerably cheaper price tag for its flagship Falcon 9 vehicle, at least insofar as the launch service itself is concerned, it appears ULA hopes to position itself as an overall competitive solution.

With less than 13 percent of the company’s launches belonging to commercial payloads, as well as increased competition for public sector launches, ULA understands that they need to market themselves more efficiently in an evolving landscape

Of course, the cost of the rocket is often several times cheaper than the satellite itself, so the configurator only paints part of the picture. However, a grounded satellite generates no revenue and can actually be a financial drain, something ULA hopes the website will do a good job explaining.

Oh, and that notional Earth-escape mission for the Atlas V 541 mentioned at the opening? It would be priced at $167 million, with the projected overall benefit of using ULA bringing the total aggregate cost down to $102 million – that’s a nearly 39 percent reduction in overall cost. While still not as inexpensive as some of their competitors, Bruno sees it differently.

“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,” Bruno said. “ULA’s average launch date slip has been less two weeks for the past five years.”

Indeed, ULA has been the model of reliability. In the 10 years since its founding, the company has conducted 113 launches with a 100 percent success rate.

Beyond simply being a tool for customers, Bruno said the RocketBuilder website may also be used as an instructional resource for students and teachers hoping to gain a clearer understanding of rockets, as well as by spaceflight enthusiasts hoping to engage in a bit of rocket-building dreaming.

Video courtesy of ULA


Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.

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