SpaceX’s attempts to buy bigger Falcon fairings complicated by contractor’s ULA relationship

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

According to a report from SpaceNews, SpaceX recently approached global aerospace supplier RUAG with the intention of procuring a new, larger payload fairing for its Falcon 9 and Heavy rockets.

RUAG is a prolific supplier of rocket fairings, spacecraft deployment mechanisms, and other miscellaneous subassemblies and components, and US company United Launch Alliance (ULA) has relied on RUAG for fairings and various other composites work for its Atlas V, Delta IV, and (soon) Vulcan launch vehicles. According to SpaceNews, that close relationship with ULA forced RUAG to turn SpaceX away, owing to ULA’s argument that the specific fairing technology SpaceX was pursuing is ULA’s intellectual property. The ramifications of this development are not earthshaking but they’re still worth exploring.

Update: A more recent report by SpaceNews seemingly revealed that RUAG has no such exclusivity or IP agreement with ULA. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that the reality is probably somewhere in between RUAG’s official statement and the more incendiary information that preceded it. As a commercial entity, RUAG is in no way obligated to supply hardware or services to any prospective buyer, and the political and economic ties between ULA and RUAG are likely more influential than public statements will ever acknowledge.

“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

Additionally, it’s likely that SpaceX is interested in procuring a few RUAG fairings not for the 5.4m diameter – the actual usable diameter is almost the same as Falcon 9’s own fairing – but for the added height, up to ~16.5m compared to F9’s ~11m.

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New fairing needed

According to rules behind the latest phase of the US Air Force military launch competition (LSA Phase 2), competitors – likely to include ULA (Vulcan), Blue Origin (New Glenn), Northrop Grumman (Omega), and SpaceX (Falcon 9/Heavy) – will have to offer a larger, 5.4-meter (17 ft) diameter payload fairing to compete for any of the several dozen launch contracts up for grabs.

SpaceX has worked with RUAG several times in the past due to the company’s involvement in numerous satellite dispensers.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Heavy rockets were designed with a 5.2m-diameter fairing that flew on the very first Falcon 9 launch and continues to be SpaceX’s only fairing today, albeit with several major modifications and upgrades since its 2010 debut. Blue Origin plans to jump straight into 7m-diameter fairing development for its large New Glenn launch vehicle, expected to launch for the first time no earlier than (NET) 2021.

Procured from RUAG, ULA has several fairing options, including its largest, a 5.4m-diameter fairing that flies on Atlas V 500-series vehicles and also flies on Arianespace’s Ariane 5. Northrop Grumman’s (formerly Orbital ATK’s) Omega will feature a 5.25m-diameter fairing if the rocket makes it to flight hardware production.

The USAF awarded major vehicle development funding to ULA, Orbital ATK (now NGIS), and Blue Origin. SpaceX was snubbed but is still eligible to compete for Phase 2 launch contracts. (Teslarati – ULA/NGIS/Blue Origin/SpaceX)

Although most of the two-dozen or so satellites to be launched as part of LSA Phase 2 are likely small enough to fit Falcon’s 5.2m fairing and Omega’s 5.25m fairing, SpaceX (and Northrop Grumman) would presumably miss out on opportunities to launch those larger (and likely higher-profile) satellites, effectively handing the contracts to Blue Origin or ULA. SpaceX is thus faced with a conundrum that has three possible solutions.

  1. Build a brand new fairing with a significantly larger diameter (5.4m+) and be forced to buy tens of millions of dollars of custom tooling and new manufacturing space for a handful of rare launches with a rocket family meant to be made redundant by Starship/Super Heavy.
  2. Buy a handful of 5.4m-diameter fairings from RUAG, the only practical commercial source on Earth.
  3. Forgo the ability to compete for the few launches that require a larger fairing.

With #2 reportedly removed by ULA’s interference for dubious reasons, the the remaining options are unsavory at best. It’s possible that SpaceX will willingly design, build and certify an entirely new Falcon fairing for US military launches, but the expense of that process – likely $50M-$100M or more – means that it would probably be contingent upon SpaceX receiving the $500M it has recently begun lobbying for.

SpaceX builds all large Falcon 9 and Heavy composite structures in house, including landing legs, interstages, and payload fairings. (SpaceX, 2016)
A Falcon 9 fairing – with the Es-hail 2 communications satellite sealed inside – is transported inside Pad 39A’s hangar to be attached to Falcon 9. (Instagram)

For reference, all three of the launch providers SpaceX is competing against – ULA, NGIS, and Blue Origin – were respectively awarded ~$970M, ~$790M, and $500M by the US Air Force to complete the development of their respective launch vehicles. SpaceX can technically compete in the ~30 launch contract competition to follow, but the company wouldn’t receive a penny of development funding to meet the same requirements its competitors are being paid hundreds of millions of dollars for. In lieu of this undeniable imbalance, SpaceX – via Congressman Adam Smith – secured language in the FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act that would provide the company $500M (equivalent to Blue Origin’s award) if they win one of Phase 2’s two block-buy contracts.

Despite the fact that the USAF has plans to spend more than $2B assisting the development of three new rockets, LSA Phase 2 procurement has been inexplicably structured in such a way that only two companies/rockets can win, with one receiving 60% of contracts and the other receiving 40%. In other words, with that baffling award structure and under the assumption that SpaceX wins one of the slots, two of the three rockets the USAF is throwing money at will either die on the drawing board (Omega) or have a significantly lower chance of achieving military launch certification (New Glenn).

Ultimately, it’s clear that building an entirely new fairing would be valuable for SpaceX, even if it might be extremely expensive and of dubious strategic merit alongside the simultaneously development of Starship/Super Heavy, a vehicle that will feature a reusable 9m-diameter payload bay. Whether or not SpaceX bites that particular bullet, the LSA Phase 2 competition remains as baffling and fascinating as ever.

SpaceX’s attempts to buy bigger Falcon fairings complicated by contractor’s ULA relationship
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