September 16, 2013
Credit: United Launch Alliance
Lockheed Martin's Atlas 5 launch vehicle is known for being reliable, accurate and usually on time. But affordable? Not so much.
A workhorse for U.S. military and civil space payloads, the modular Atlas 5 has an almost-flawless track record—and a correspondingly hefty price tag: In 2011, under NASA's five-year launch services agreement with United Launch Alliance (ULA), the Lockheed-Boeing joint venture that manages government missions can charge $101-334 million per Atlas launch.
Those prices could be reduced by 2015 if ULA and the U.S. Air Force can negotiate a bulk buy of Atlas 5 and Boeing Delta 4 core stages. But for the past several years, with only two commercial missions in backlog—a pair of high-resolution, Earth-observation satellites for U.S. remote-sensing services provider DigitalGlobe—Atlas 5 has not been a serious contender in a competitive launch market dominated by European and Russian rockets.
In 1988, when the first Atlas vehicle was launched, 40% of Lockheed Martin missions were commercial. Since 2006, when ULA was formed to consolidate Atlas and Delta operations, the rockets' manifests have primarily been held by dozens of national security and civil space missions for the company's anchor tenant.
So it came as a surprise when Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services announced on Sept. 9 a contract with Mexico to loft the Boeing-built Morales 3 geostationary communications satellite on an Atlas 5 in its 421 configuration in 2015. Commercial Launch Services President Robert Cleave says the combination of economies expected from the core-stage block buy, and ULA's aggressive efforts to negotiate more favorable pricing with suppliers, has helped reduce the cost of an Atlas 5 commercial launch by “north of 20%” in the past year, making it more attractive to non-U.S.-government customers.
With looming defense cuts anticipated under U.S. sequestration, and the emergence of new launch vehicles aimed at government business—notably the SpaceX Falcon 9—Lockheed Martin wants back in the game.
“We've taken a pause to focus on the U.S. government as the core business of the Atlas rocket. But now we want to get back and be a meaningful participant in the market,” Cleave said Sept. 11 on the sidelines of the annual Euroconsult satellite conference here. “Meaningful to us is a couple a year, and we're going to be very selective in who we pursue. This is a special rocket, and we're not going to bid on every single opportunity that comes out.”