The Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. joint venture that has come under fire for relying on Russian-made rocket engines to launch U.S. military and spy satellites has reshuffled its executive suite.
United Launch Alliance LLC, based in Centennial, Colorado, on Tuesday announced that Michael Gass, president and chief executive officer since the venture’s formation in 2006, was stepping down, effective immediately, and succeeded by Tory Bruno, vice president and general manager of strategic and missile defense systems at Lockheed.
“Mike’s track record speaks for itself: 86 successful launches in a row, including many of our nation’s most complex and critical space missions,” Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space Systems and a ULA board member, said in a statement. “Tory is an ideal leader to take the reins at ULA. He’ll bring the same unwavering commitment to mission success that has been ULA’s hallmark, and will apply his proven track record of driving customer focus, innovation and affordability to shape ULA’s future.”
The statement didn’t mention any of the recent controversy surrounding the U.S. Air Force’s costly Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, program. ULA is the sole supplier for the effort, which is estimated to cost $70 billion through 2030, and relies on the Russian RD-180 engine as a first-stage engine for the Atlas V rocket.
Start-up rocket-maker Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX and headed by billionaire Elon Musk, who co-founded Pay Pal Inc. and also heads the electric car-maker Tesla, has sued the Air Force to open more of the missions to competition.
The lawsuit came amid rising tensions between the U.S. over Russia over the latter’s invasion and subsequent annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and raised questions about American dependence on Russian hardware for national-security programs.
Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, who was targeted for sanctions by the White House over the Ukraine issue, took to Twitter to issue threats of ending shipments of the RD-180 to the U.S. But government and ULA officials said deliveries of the engine have continued uninterrupted.
The Air Force said it’s trying to certify new companies like SpaceX to launch national-security payloads while developing a domestic alternative to the RD-180.
The service subsequently asked Congress for permission to transfer $100 million within this year’s budget accounts to hold a competition to launch the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program-20 earlier than planned. While some lawmakers have backed the idea, both the Senate and House armed services committees have delayed the request, asking the Air Force to come up with a plan to develop an alternative to the Russian engine by 2019.
SpaceX recently announced plans to open a private spaceport in Texas. A handful of the companies’ suppliers in Alabama recently wrote a letter to state’s congressional delegation, including Republicans Sen. Richard Shelby and Rep. Mo Brooks, urging the lawmakers to support launch competition.
“These companies — though they may not be based in Alabama — draw many millions of dollars each year to the Decatur and Huntsville areas,” the Aug. 1 letter states. “We especially want to emphasize that commercial space transportation and ‘traditional’ aerospace both contribute significantly to suppliers like us. We hope you agree with us that competition and a broader overall set of industry players increase our business.”
It went on, “In this atmosphere of a shrinking federal budget and the threat of other states trying to draw work away from Alabama, the commercial space industry and its global customer base presents an enormous growth opportunity for the region.”