During my time working at Space Exploration Technologies, I witnessed the downfall of the United Launch Alliance (ULA), the predominant player in the government launch industry. At the time, SpaceX was gaining momentum in breaking ULA’s monopoly on lucrative national security launches that they had held for the past decade. This became far more pronounced when in 2014, U.S. sanctions threatened to cut off ULA’s supply chain of Russian manufactured rocket engines. Over the course of these events, I watched to see how they would attempt to solve the problem of owning a rocket without an engine.
United Launch Alliance Origins
The United Launch Alliance was formed in 2006 as a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin . Before the joint venture, both companies had competed in the United States Air Force’s (USAF) Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. The EELV program began in 1994 as a solution to create launch systems to serve National Security Space (NSS) launch requirements  and ensure the United States government would always have access to space.
The joint venture gave ULA control over Lockheed Martin’s workhorse rocket, the Atlas V. ULA then went on an unprecedented run with a 100% success rate over 100 launches from 2006 to 2015 . Their position as sole provider of government launches finally came to an end, however, when SpaceX became EELV certified in 2015. Future EELV launches would then be opened up for competition between ULA and SpaceX for the first time since 2006.
Atlas V and the RD-180
Before becoming ULA’s go-to rocket, the Atlas V was developed by Lockheed Martin using the core design of ICBMs from the Cold War . In an interesting twist, they teamed up with Russian rocket scientists leftover from the collapse of the Soviet Union in order to prevent dangerous technology getting into the hands of other emerging powers . These Russian scientists were far ahead of their American counterparts in rocket engine technology so Lockheed Martin incorporated the RD-180 into its Atlas V vehicle. NPO Energomash, the Russian based manufacturer, ended up supplying engines at a fixed price of $1 billion USD for 101 RD-180s . Somehow the United States’ national security found itself critically relying on a Russian import.
Russia’s Annexation of Crimea
This precarious situation came to a head in the beginning of 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea amid worldwide disapproval, with the United States and European Union laying sanctions on Russian officials. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin who was also the head of the Russian space program, replied in a tweet:
“I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”
Senator John McCain led the charge to end reliance on the RD-180 with his introduction of legislation to effectively ban it as an import . The RD-180 ban passed the Senate floor, allocating only 18 RD-180s with a hard cutoff on December 31, 2022 .
ULA’s board decided to replace their current CEO Michael Gass, who had held the position since ULA’s founding, with the more dynamic Tory Bruno . Tory Bruno rallied ULA’s powerful lobbying force led by Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, whose state contained thousands of ULA employees. In addition, ULA refused to bid for their first EELV contract since SpaceX became certified, citing a lack of available RD-180s among other reasons. These moves enhanced U.S. space concerns and the Senate passed an amendment to allow the RD-180 imports once again on June 15, 2017  in order to ensure access to space.
Meanwhile, their next generation launch vehicle, the Vulcan, was announced. The Vulcan set its earliest launch date to 2019 and estimated a “bare bones” price of $82 million . ULA would partner with Blue Origin, an aerospace company run by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, to manufacture new engines domestically.
ULA’s current plan for Vulcan needs to be far more ambitious. With SpaceX now successfully reusing rocket boosters, ULA will only be able to compete if they can reduce launch prices far below their projected $82 million goal. By the time Vulcan is introduced, it may already be overly expensive and using outdated technology. On a positive note, Blue Origin shows promise as a domestic supplier of rocket engines and will once and for all end ULA’s reliance on Russia.
One fundamental question remains. ULA’s Atlas V launch vehicle has demonstrated incredible consistency, something not to be overlooked when payloads cost in the $100 million range. With the RD-180 ban officially over, is it worth the investment and time to create an entirely new launch vehicle with the Vulcan program?
 Bloomberg News, “Lockheed and Boeing to Form Rocket Launching Venture,” The New York Times, May 3, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/03/business/lockheed-and-boeing-to-form-rocket-launching-venture.html?_r=0, accessed November 2017.
 Air Force Space Command, “Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles,” published March 22, 2017, http://www.afspc.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Article/249026/evolved-expendable-launch-vehicle/, accessed November 2017.
 Mike Wall, “Dazzling Rocket Launch Marks 100th Liftoff for United Launch Alliance,” Space.com, published October 2, 2015, https://www.space.com/30738-united-launch-alliance-100th-rocket-launch.html, accessed November 2017.
 Andy Pasztor, “Post-Soviet Pacts Spawned U.S. Reliance on Russian Rocket Engines,” The Wallstreet Journal, September 4, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/post-soviet-pacts-spawned-u-s-reliance-on-russian-rocket-engines-1504526401, accessed November 2017.
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 NBC News, “Trampoline to Space? Russian Official Tells NASA to Take a Flying Leap,” published April 29, 2014, https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/ukraine-crisis/trampoline-space-russian-official-tells-nasa-take-flying-leap-n92616, accessed November 2017.
 John McCain, “McCain & McCarthy Bill Targets Russian Rocket Engines,” published January 27, 2016, https://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/press-releases?ID=d25046ac-4381-440f-a609-7b0fbcc5d7e2, accessed November 2017.
 Marcia Smith, ”Senate Reaches Agreement on Russian RD-180 Engines,” SpacePolicyOnline.com, published June 14, 2016, https://spacepolicyonline.com/news/senate-agreement-reaches-on-russian-rd-180-engines/, accessed November 2017.
 James Tutten, “ULA Board Members Replace Founding CEO and President Michael Gass,” SpaceFlightInsider.com, published August 13, 2014, http://www.spaceflightinsider.com/organizations/ula/ula-replaces-founding-ceo-president-michael-gass/, accessed November 2017.
 Chris Gebhardt, “U.S. Debates Atlas V RD-180 Ban, ULA’s Non-Bid for Military Launch, NASASpaceFlight.com, published January 29, 2016, https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2016/01/u-s-debates-atlas-v-rd-180-ban-ulas-non-bid-military/, accessed November 2017.
 Chris Gebhardt and Chris Bergin, “World Launch Markets Look Towards Rocket Reusability,” NASASpaceFlight.com, published June 24, 2015, https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2015/06/world-launch-markets-rocket-reusability/, accessed November 2017.
 Jeff Foust, “Amendment to Senate Bill Allows Continued Imports of Russian Rocket Engines,” Space News, published June 15, 2017, http://spacenews.com/amendment-to-senate-bill-allows-continued-imports-of-russian-rocket-engines/, accessed November 2017.