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I've read an interesting article that mentions Michael Gass, president and CEO of United Launch Alliance (ULA), alluding to ULA innovations during the latest Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing at Capitol Hill this Wednesday, March 5, 2014:

Not surprisingly, Michael Gass, president and CEO of United Launch Alliance, the company that up to now has been the sole provider of military Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle -- EELV -- rockets for national security payloads, disagreed, saying his company constantly innovates and that its Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets were the most reliable in the world.

The whole context is described in the linked to article, so I won't repeat what the purpose of that hearing was. But this statement does present an opportunity to discuss this here without being seen as argumentative. If Michael Gass believes that statement is good enough for the U.S. Senate hearing, and it shouldn't present an opportunity for Elon Musk to contest it in his comeback, surely there's ample proof supporting this assertion.

But, for the better of me, I can't think of a single substantial innovation on the part of ULA that isn't proprietary to Boeing and Lockheed Martin from the times before the merger / partnership. Unless Gass was alluding to some other than technological innovations? Thus my question:

What innovations was Michael Gass alluding to during his latest address to the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee? Is there, from technological standpoint, any evidence that ULA is an innovative player in the space launch business?

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

One possibility is actually building two disparate launch vehicles in the same shared facility. The Delta 4 and Atlas 5 cores are pretty distinctive and different.

Beyond that, he is blowing smoke. Atlas 5/Delta 4 are basically identical to before the ULA merger. They have managed to get launch cycle times down somewhat. but not enough to be considered an innovation.

Launch success is not innovation. That is the normal expectation. If you fail to launch successfully, you have failed.

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Here's a list from Wikipedia:

Atlas V

  • In 2006, ULA offered an Atlas V HLV (Heavy Lift Vehicle) option that would use three Common Core Booster (CCB) stages strapped together to lift a 29,400 kg (64,816 lb) payload to low Earth orbit
  • 541 configuration
  • Some consideration of using the Delta tooling system to allow for a different engine.

Delta IV

*There's been a few new configurations flown (Medium+(5,4), Medium+(5,2)

Bottom line, not much that's public, perhaps some stuff that hasn't hit the floor yet.

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OK, so not much in terms of innovation there, all these seem as normal launch vehicle evolutionary steps. Didn't they switch to a new paint on Delta IV to reduce the marshmallow effect and those spectacular fires from cryo-ingested liquid hydrogen catching into flame on the launchpad just after main engine ignition? :D – TildalWave Mar 7 '14 at 15:21
@TildalWave There must be some serious lobbying against SpaceX going on. They are so far ahead it is not even funny. – this Mar 7 '14 at 16:31
SpaceX isn't as far ahead as they seem. They run a really good PR campaign, but their launches keep slipping... – PearsonArtPhoto Mar 7 '14 at 16:34
Atlas V Heavy has never been developed. Offering something that is not chosen is not innovative. Also, that had been planned from day one of the Atlas V design. – geoffc Mar 7 '14 at 17:11
@TildalWave New paint! That is what ULA calls innovation! :) – geoffc Mar 7 '14 at 17:11

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