Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services (LMCLS), the Lockheed Martin subsidiary that has marketed commercial launches of the Atlas V, will soon be no more. The firm’s role is being taken over by the joint Boeing/Lockheed Martin firm that runs the launches: the United Launch Alliance (ULA).  As such, given this event, and the fact that the small Athena launch vehicle programme is effectively ended, LMCLS is now expected to be wound up.

While ULA was always in charge of US military and government launches, commercial launch contracts were the responsibility of LMCLS, a subsidiary of the Lockheed Martin firm which originally built the Atlas V (Atlas V rockets are now built under the auspices of ULA). In truth, LMCLS won little business with, on average, only one launch per year being flown under its colours.  This was due to a combination of schedule difficulties – the US military and government launches booked most of the Atlas V flights – and price. The Atlas V was about 20% more expensive than its Ariane 5 and Proton competitors for a given commercial communications satellite launch. The situation was made worse by the arrival of an even cheaper competitor, the SpaceX Falcon 9.

Nevertheless, there was still a niche market for the rocket given its excellent reliability: those firms that wanted near certain delivery of their satellite picked the Atlas V.

With the wind-down of the expensive-to-run medium version of the Boeing built Delta IV, this leaves ULA with just the Delta IV Heavy as well as its Atlas V mainstay. However, the commercially uncompetitive Atlas V will eventually be retired in favour of a much cheaper-to-operate partly reusable successor called Vulcan.

Comment by David Todd: There will be some cost savings in having ULA run all the Atlas V marketing. In the meantime, Tory Bruno, CEO of ULA, wants the firm to have a greater footprint in the commercial market ahead of the Vulcan launch vehicle’s introduction. He knows that commercial business will be needed as well as military contracts in order to make the Vulcan competitive. While ULA used to be able to just about “write its own cheque” for military and government launches under the US Air Force EELV programme, competition for these launches from SpaceX Falcon 9 has meant that this is no longer the case. The military business will not be enough on its own to make the Vulcan pay.