Space has long exerted an almost primal hold on America’s imagination and its self-image. Whether it was acute national anxiety after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in the 1950s, or excitement and ultimately pride when the U.S. set it sights on, and eventually stepped onto, the moon in 1969, millions of Americans felt it personally. They grieved when the Challenger exploded and exulted at the triumphs. In recent years, after a period in which the government canceled the space shuttle program and receded from leadership, popular excitement has been rekindled with the entry of ambitious private entities such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. The former, in particular, has enchanted space fans with some audacious successes, including landing a used rocket booster on a platform in the ocean.
That’s the back drop for a compelling, surprising tale of a clash of upstart vs. incumbent sprinkled with politics, foreign conflict, and history. “The Great Rocket Race,” by Clay Dillow, in Fortune examines the efforts by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to fend off SpaceX and Blue Origin to maintain what was long a monopoly on rocket launches to transport satellites and the like to orbit. Not only is ULA undercut by SpaceX on price (it’ll cost you $164-$350 million for a ULA Atlas V launch vs. $62 million for SpaceX’s Falcon 9), but ULA is hamstrung by something I found flabbergasting: Its rockets, a quintessential national-security technology, have been dependent on…Russian engines. That’s a product of a brief period of warm relations (and cheap Russian technology) after the Cold War ended. But now that relations are chilling again, Congress is putting an end to it. The result is an unexpected (and well-told) story of an entrenched company trying to preserve its monopoly as circumstances change. It even includes a ULA CEO who acknowledges the company’s challenges and has a side passion studying the medieval Knights Templar. He offers this quote comparing his future to that of the chief knight: “I don’t want to be burned at the stake.”