The United Launch Alliance has launched (!) a website that lets you specify, build, and eventually launch (!!) an Atlas V rocket carrying your precious cargo. The website, aptly called Rocket Builder, says right at the top that launches start at just $109 million (£87 million)—a bargain.
Rocket Builder, while ostensibly a semi-funny marketing tool , is surprisingly full-featured. When you’ve fully configured your launch vehicle you can even submit it directly to the ULA sales office, whereupon they’ll phone you up and ask for your credit card details.
To send your payload into space the Rocket Builder website requires the following info: a launch date; a desired orbit (GTO, GEO, LEO, polar, solar, Earth escape); the weight of the payload; and a variety of "service options." Selecting a geosynchronous orbit with a large payload seems to be the most expensive option, starting at around $155 million (those five additional solid rocket boosters don’t come cheap).
The basic service option is "core," which gets you to GTO (geosynchronous transfer orbit) and that’s about it. Step up to the "signature" service (+$10 million) and you get a few added bonuses, such as a payload adapter and spacecraft separation system, separation shock testing, and after-launch mission analysis. The "full spectrum" service (+$20 million) gets you on-board video, more mission rehearsals, payload environmental instrumentation, and classified mission security. (Curiously, though, there’s a note at the bottom of the page that says "RocketBuilder pricing does not include all services required for full US Government (USG) compliance.")
For an extra million you can also have the "mission insight" and/or the "rocket marketing" packages bolted on. The first seems to give you more access to ULA and the launch site ahead of the actual launch; the latter is all about capitalising on the halo effect of launching a rocket into space (pre-launch events, mission apparel, 100 VIP tickets to the launch, etc).
Finally, the website lets you download a PDF with the specs of your rocket, save the rocket for later, view a 3D model of the rocket (cute!), or submit the configuration to the United Launch Alliance. All told, the cheapest Atlas V rocket launch is $109 million; the most expensive, at least via the website, is about $180 million (£143 million).
Notably, only the lighter-duty Atlas V rocket is available from the Rocket Builder site; none of the Delta IV rockets, including the heavy lift variant, are available. This might have something to do with cost—Delta IV launches start at around $400 million—or it could be because Delta IV, except for its debut launch, has only been used by the US government. In any case, this means you can only use Rocket Builder to get around 19,000kg to LEO or 9,000kg to GTO. (Delta IV Heavy can do 26,000kg and 14,000kg respectively.)
The purpose of the Rocket Builder site, of course, is to pull potential customers away from cheaper space launch companies like SpaceX, which currently has an entry-level launch price of about $60 million (£48 million). While the ULA can’t match SpaceX on raw cost, the company claims that the "added value" of flying with ULA equates to a rather hefty $65 million. That number is extrapolated from the
Atlas V’s superb reliability , schedule certainty—two things that
SpaceX has struggled with
—and "orbit optimisation," which can increase the spacecraft’s mission length. The actual value of using Atlas V over Falcon 9 will vary from company to company and mission to mission, of course.
I fully expect SpaceX to launch a similar site in the next few months, countering some of the ULA claims—and no doubt, at the bottom, there’ll be a big checkbox for "land my rocket back on Earth."