"If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space."
-- Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO
You've got to hand it to the guy: Elon Musk is definitely no stranger to rocking the proverbial boat. Not only is he the CEO at Tesla Motors, a company set on changing the automotive world from gas-powered to electricity-powered vehicles, but he's also tackling a veritable space travel monopoly by going head-to-head with Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Lockheed Martin's (NYSE:LMT) 50-50 joint venture, United Launch Alliance, or ULA.
Simply put, Musk wants to change the world and expand our horizons, and one way he plans on doing so is by making American-made, reusable rockets. This is a brilliant idea. So brilliant, in fact, that ULA has decided to build its own reusable rocket, called the Vulcan.
The war for space
Currently, rockets are a one-time-use-only deal, making the cost of space travel prohibitive to say the least. Although ULA doesn't give an exact figure for just the rocket, under its current block buy, ULA says the average cost to launch a rocket is $225 million (and that's a discounted price). Furthermore, SpaceX points out that the majority of the launch cost is due to building the rocket.
Thus, to help reduce cost, SpaceX is working to build a rocket on which both the first and second stages are reusable. Moreover, SpaceX is already in the process of testing the F9R, which is basically a Falcon 9 first-stage rocket that has landing legs. The goal, according to SpaceX, is to have the F9R return to Earth intact, touch down on land, and be reusable numerous times. But this idea is proving to be easier said than done, as so far, although it successfully guided the booster to the floating platform, SpaceX hasn't been able to achieve a vertical landing of the F9R.
Even more damning is that during a June 28 launch intended to resupply the International Space Station and conduct a rocket-reusability test, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket exploded soon after liftoff. This incident not only destroyed the rocket and cargo but also made testing the rocket's reusability impossible, and it ruined the Falcon 9's previous 100% success rate.
While these setbacks aren't great for SpaceX, they're more than welcome news for ULA. In addition to working to make rockets reusable, SpaceX, and in particular Musk, has made it clear that it wants in on the action when it comes to national security launches -- something that only ULA has been able to do in the past. In fact, even though he later dropped the suit, Musk sued the Air Force over its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle contract award to ULA, saying that ULA had an unfair monopoly, that using SpaceX's rockets over ULA's could save taxpayers billions, and that ULA's Atlas uses Russian-made engines, which is a problem given the rising tensions between Russia and the U.S.
ULA ponies up
Even though SpaceX didn't follow through with its lawsuit -- SpaceX cited the Air Force's agreement to expand competitive opportunities for launch services as a reason -- the fact remains that SpaceX is proving to be quite the competitor to ULA. As such, the threat of SpaceX's reusable rocket isn't something that ULA is taking, or should take, lightly.
Indeed, if SpaceX is successful in building a reusable rocket, and ULA doesn't have a viable alternative, ULA could effectively be rendered obsolete. That's bad news for both Boeing and Lockheed Martin: According to Boeing's 2014 annual report, equity earnings primarily attributable to ULA came to $211 million in 2014, and according to Lockheed Martin's 2014 annual report, that number was approximately $280 million for Lockheed in that same year. Plus, the current EELV block-buy contract will cost the Air Force $11 billion over the next five years, which directly benefits both Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
Consequently, ULA is working on a next-generation launch system that'll not only address some of Musk's points of criticism but also compete with the F9R. Pointedly, ULA states, "With the introduction of the Vulcan, ULA's next-generation launch system, ULA is transforming the future of space launch -- making it more affordable, accessible, and commercialized -- and innovating to develop solutions to the nation's most critical need: reliable access to space."
Specifically, with an initial launch capability planned for 2019, according to ULA, the Vulcan will be reusable, have an engine that's made in America, will exceed the capabilities of the Atlas V (and eventually the Delta IV Heavy), and be more affordable. Simply put, ULA has no intention of ceding its business to SpaceX.
Who wins; who loses?
Right now neither SpaceX nor ULA has a reusable rocket. However, that doesn't mean they won't eventually get there. ULA is a highly successful launch company -- evident in the fact that it's had over 100 successful launches since its inception in 2006 -- and it's backed by two giants in the defense industry: Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
SpaceX, on the other hand, is relatively new and doesn't have the backing of two defense titans, but it's led by none other than Elon Musk, the man who's been -- not so jokingly -- called the real-life Tony Stark. Plus, it's come pretty far even in the limited amount of time it's been around. Consequently, while it's still too early to say what this competition will mean to both companies, it seems probable that both will eventually meet their objective -- which will undoubtedly be great news when it comes to furthering space travel. At the very least, however, this competition is great news for taxpayers, as ULA now has to compete with SpaceX.
Katie Spence has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.