SpaceX may have signed a fairing agreement with ULA supplier RUAG (Update: no agreement)

Falcon 9 and Heavy use the same custom-built fairing but SpaceX is reportedly interested in buying taller fairings from prominent ULA supplier RUAG. (SpaceX/ULA)

According to unverified and speculative comments reportedly made to a member of the space industry by a RUAG spokesperson, the prominent aerospace supplier may have reached an agreement with SpaceX to manufacture a handful of larger payload fairings for future Falcon 9 and Heavy launches.

In the likely event that SpaceX is one of two contractors awarded a portion of several dozen US military launch contracts next year, the company will need to be able to cater to niche requirements, including accommodating unusually tall military satellites. Those satellites can be so tall that SpaceX’s own payload fairing – generally middle-of-the-pack relative to competitors’ offerings – may be too short, meaning that SpaceX will have to find ways around that minor shortcoming.

Update: Tim Chen has retracted his earlier comments and has stated that there is actually no agreement currently in place with SpaceX for RUAG to produce taller fairings out of its new Decatur, AL factory.

Additionally, ULA CEO Tory Bruno clarified that the company’s “[new fairing] has [ULA] intellectual property in its design and manufacture … [and] is currently planned only for use on Atlas and Vulcan”, meaning that any cooperation between SpaceX and RUAG would likely require a new production facility and a somewhat different fairing design.

“ULA’s new fairing, which is built in our factory in Decatur, has our intellectual property in its design and manufacture. This fairing is currently planned only for use on Atlas and Vulcan. You would want to ask RUAG about business they might have with their other customers.”

Tory Bruno, August 14th, 2019

Regardless of the veracity of these recent claims, it appears that SpaceX has three obvious responses at its disposal: design and build an entirely new variant of its universal Falcon fairing, purchase the necessary fairings from an established supplier, or bow out of launch contract competitions that demand it. The latter option is immediately untenable given that it could very well mean bowing out of the entire US military competition, known as Phase 2 of the National Security Space Launch program’s (NSSL; formerly EELV) Launch Services Procurement (LSP).

For dubious reasons, the US Air Force (USAF) has structured the NSSL Phase 2 acquisition in such a way that – despite there being four possible competitors – only two will be awarded contracts at its conclusion. The roughly ~30 launch contracts up for grabs would be split 60:40 between the two victors, leaving two competitors completely emptyhanded. In short, bowing out of the Phase 2 competition could mean forgoing as many as one or two-dozen contracts worth at least $1-2B, depending on the side of the 60:40 split.

A side-by-side comparison of Blue Origin, SpaceX, and ULA fairings, roughly to scale. (Teslarati)

According to a handful of recent comments and developments, SpaceX has likely sided with the option of procuring taller fairings from an industry supplier. As it turns out, European company RUAG has effectively cornered the Western rocket fairing market, with SpaceX being the only Western launch company currently building its own fairings. RUAG builds fairings for both Arianespace’s Ariane 5 and Vega rockets and ULA’s Atlas V. Additionally, RUAG will build and supply fairings for both companies’ next-gen rockets – Arianespace’s Ariane 6 and ULA’s Vulcan – and builds fairings for a number of smallsat launch companies.

Comments made in June by a RUAG official confirmed that there was some semblance of a relationship between SpaceX and RUAG for the purpose of satisfying USAF needs for taller fairings, although the phrasing suggested that the cooperation was in its early stages and nothing had been solidified.

“In a June 12 letter to Smith, the company’s CEO Peter Guggenbach makes the case that legislation forcing access to suppliers is unnecessary in this case because RUAG does not have an exclusive arrangement with ULA and is willing to work with SpaceX or any other launch providers.

“For this competition, we are in the process of submitting or have submitted proposals to multiple prime contractors regarding launch vehicle fairings. In those agreements, we share technical data to support a prime contractor’s bid while protecting our intellectual property.”

RUAG vice president Karl Jensen told 
SpaceNews the company has a “significant partnership” with ULA but is looking to work with others too. “We have an offer to SpaceX,” he said. “We don’t know if they’ll accept it.”

SpaceNews, 06/13/2019

RUAG (right) builds payload fairings for Ariane 5/6, Delta IV, Atlas V, and Vulcan. SpaceX (left) builds its own Falcon fairings in-house. (SpaceX/RUAG)

Interestingly, although ULA’s RUAG-built Atlas V fairing is slightly narrower than SpaceX’s 5.2m (17 ft) diameter fairing, Atlas V’s largest fairing is significantly taller, supporting payloads up to 16.5m (54 ft) tall compared to 11m (36 ft) for Falcon 9 and Heavy. Given that just a tiny portion of military spacecraft actually need fairings that tall, SpaceX is apparently not interested in simply modifying its own fairing design and production equipment to support a 20-30% stretch.

This likely relates in part to the fact that one of SpaceX’s three NSSL Phase 2 competitors – Northrop Grumman (Omega), Blue Origin (New Glenn), and ULA (Vulcan) – are guaranteed to receive hundreds of millions of dollars of development funding after winning one of the two available slots (60% or 40% of contracts). SpaceX, on the other hand, will receive no such funding while still having to meet the same stringent USAF requirements compete in LSP Phase 2. Of note, Congressman Adam Smith managed to insert a clause into FY2020’s defense authorization bill that could disburse up to $500M to SpaceX in the event that the company is one of Phase 2’s two winners.

SpaceX builds all large Falcon 9 and Heavy composite structures in house, including landing legs, interstages, and payload fairings. (SpaceX, 2016)

Despite this potential influx of infrastructure-focused funds, SpaceX may still be pursuing taller Falcon fairings from RUAG as a backup in the event that the company is not one of the two Phase 2 winners or is unable to use some of the $500M secured by Rep. Smith to develop its own stretched fairing.

On August 12th, SpaceX – along with Blue Origin, ULA, and NGIS – submitted bids for NSSL Phase 2 launch services, confirming that all four companies will indeed be in the running for contracts. The USAF is not expected to announce the results of this competition until Q2 2020.

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"Eric Ralph : @twitter.com/13ericralph31 I write about space, among other things.."
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