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Decatur ULA could grow to manned missions

By Eric Fleischauer 340-2435

Decatur is the center of operations for the sole producer of launch rockets for U.S. government satellites, said United Launch Alliance Chief Executive Officer Michael Gass, and one day it could play a role in manned space flight.

Gass, formerly chief of Lockheed Martin Corp. launch operations, on Wednesday visited the Decatur plant previously owned by Boeing Co. With him was ULA Chief Operating Officer Dan Collins, formerly head of Boeing launch operations. Both will work in ULA's Denver headquarters.

Proposed in May 2005, Boeing and Lockheed struggled through an unexpectedly lengthy federal approval process before finalizing the joint venture of the companies' main launch products Friday.

ULA has a monopoly on production of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles, essentially the only type of rocket the U.S. government uses to launch its satellites. Expensive but reliable, EELVs also have a growing presence in the commercial market. ULA's sole production facility for the rockets — the Delta II, Delta IV and Atlas V — will be in Decatur.

Gass said ULA has hired Phil Marshall, formerly plant manager at the Boeing plant, and promoted him to vice president of operations at ULA. While Marshall will remain in Decatur, his responsibilities now extend to all ULA locations nationwide.

In addition to Decatur and Denver, ULA has facilities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.,; Pueblo, Colo.; Harlingen, Texas; and, in California, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Huntington Beach and San Diego.

Collins and Gass, who were barred from sharing launch information of their respective companies until they finalized the joint venture, said three to six months of information sharing and planning must take place before ULA begins moving equipment to the Decatur plant for installation of a separate assembly line for the Atlas V.

Gass said the planning and installation process for the Atlas line will cost up to $100 million.

ULA does not expect any significant expansion of the 1.5 million-square-foot Decatur facility, which was built in 1997 to accommodate a much brisker launch business than was forthcoming. Gass said Friday he expects the Decatur plant to add about 100 employees to the 637 it has now.

Business is picking up, though, with 21 launches planned for next year. The launches will include a dozen Delta IIs, six Atlas 5s and three Delta IVs.

"It's great to be in Decatur," Gass said. "This is the center of ULA operations, right here in this great plant."

Collins said the Decatur plant was the obvious choice as ULA's production center.

"For the formation of the ULA," Collins said, "this plant was one of the major assets Boeing contributed."

One of Lockheed's contributions to the venture was its agreement to drop a lawsuit it filed against Boeing for the alleged theft of proprietary information about Atlas V production techniques. Gass said Lockheed dismissed the lawsuit Friday. Gass said friction between the companies related to that lawsuit and their at-times-bitter rivalry for government launch contracts are past.

"We have a lot of work to do merging the two cultures, but we have a clear and noble vision," Gass said. "That's a great rallying point."

The finalization of ULA won't impact the scheduled launch next week of a Delta II that will carry a classified National Reconnaissance Office satellite. The Decatur plant will complete assembly of its next two rockets — a Delta II in January and a Delta IV in April or May — before the ULA has installed the Lockheed line.

Marshall said he is thrilled about the promotion.

"My family is delighted we are able to remain in Decatur," Marshall said. "I'll have expanded responsibilities, though. I'll have a lot of work to do here. ULA brings lots of opportunities for all of its employees."

Gass said Decatur-made rockets could one day have a role in manned space missions. He noted that John Glenn entered orbit in a spacecraft perched atop an Atlas rocket in 1962.

His statement, while oblique, was not idle. According to published reports, Lockheed is in talks with Bigelow Aerospace to evaluate the business and technical aspects of using the Atlas 5 for launching manned space vehicles. The initial focus is on launching spacecraft to service orbital space complexes like the International Space Station.

"Manned space flight is a possibility" for ULA products, Gass said.

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