ULA to create 75 jobs, add rockets
United Launch Alliance, one of Decatur’s largest employers, expects to add up to 75 employees to its facility this year after adding 150 in 2011.
The plant has about 800 employees and 200 contract workers.
Dan Caughran, the Decatur site leader, said last week the plant will assemble roughly 13 rockets in 2012, up from nine in 2011. All ULA rockets are assembled in Decatur.
New employees likely would include aerospace technicians and some engineers, though specifics regarding positions and pay were not revealed.
The surge — almost exclusively for U.S. government customers — comes at a time when Congress is gridlocked on even the smallest budget items.
ULA is producing 50 percent more rockets, each with a price tag reported to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
“A lot of these satellites were programs that started in the early 2000s,” said Huntsville-based Phil Marshall, head of Alabama government relations and business development. “They had their own development challenges.”
On Wednesday, a ULA Atlas V is scheduled to launch the Mobile User Objective System-1 satellite from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The Defense Department satellite will use 3G mobile communications technology to improve military communications. The $2.1 billion contract for two MUOS satellites was awarded in 2004.
The following Atlas V launch, scheduled for April, is the second in a series of communications satellites contracted out by the Air Force in 2000. The satellites are designed to provide reliable military communications for the United States and a handful of allies capable of operating through nuclear war.
In these budget-cutting days, grumbles about ULA launch costs has been routine. ULA will not disclose the cost of each launch, but the Air Force typically pays $200 million to $300 million for an Atlas V launch, including the assembled rocket, fuel and other costs.
While the price tag is high, it typically is much less than the cost of satellite it launches.
A failed launch not only would waste money that used to develop the satellite, it would delay implementation of technologies designed to protect U.S. troops.
Launch reliability, therefore, is crucial, and ULA appears unmatched in that category with 57 consecutive successful missions.
Reliability is even more important as ULA and competitor Space Explorations seek to provide the launch vehicle that NASA chooses to replace the retired shuttle program. In those missions, the lives of astronauts also will be at stake.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has launched only twice. A planned launch last month — which would have sent an unmanned space capsule to the International Space Station — was postponed indefinitely by the company. SpaceX projects lower costs for its launches, however, than ULA.
Caughran said ULA has a proven record and “the mature design and processes that will enable us to continue developing that reliability.”
Four companies are working with NASA in a competition aimed at servicing the space station. Three — Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin — would use the Atlas V. The fourth, SpaceX, would use its own Falcon 9.
NASA expects to make Commercial Crew Integrated Capability Initiative awards this summer, with values ranging from $300 million to $500 million.
Chavez said it would take ULA about three years to complete a human-rated Atlas V after NASA makes a selection.
“The long pole in the tent is the space vehicle, not the launch vehicle,” Chavez said. “We’re not going to redesign the Atlas V for the spacecraft. We’re going to integrate with the spacecraft.”
Caughran said that if NASA selects a proposal that uses the Atlas 5, Decatur would benefit.
“Clearly there would be additional work that would be put in the Decatur plant,” Caughran said. “It’s premature to know exactly what magnitude.”
ULA launched three of its smaller Delta IIs last year, but no launches are slated this year. That could change, Marshall said, and if it does, ULA may boost employment even higher this year.
“It’s primarily on the NASA side that we see the current interest in the Delta II, but there are some other possible commercial markets out there,” Marshall said.
Another development that could benefit hiring at the Decatur plant is a controversial “bulk buy” in which the Air Force would commit to purchasing rockets for a time period of three to seven years.
“Typically in the past, they would contract one launch at a time,” Marshall said. “That made for an unstable supply chain. What a multi-year buy, or block buy, allows us to do is make long-time commitments with our supply chain. When they know they have a certain number of vehicles out over three to five years, that can make some dramatic cost improvements.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been a critic of the bulk-buy plan, which received funding in President Obama’s proposed Pentagon budget last week.
ULA occasionally has struggled to receive support from Alabama’s congressional delegation, especially with Obama’s increased reliance on the private sector for servicing the International Space Station. That placed ULA and NASA Marshall Space Flight Center interests at odds.
Those tensions are subsiding, Marshall said.
“Over the last year we’ve seen significant support,” he said. “We’ve always had strong support from (Rep. Robert) Aderholt (R-Haleyville). I think (Rep.) Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville) is definitely onboard. ...”
In September, ULA hired Mark Bitterman — formerly of Orbital Sciences and SpaceX — as vice president of expanded Washington, D.C., operations.