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ULA executive resigns over 'ill-advised' remarks

Remarks made in seminar at University of Colorado

ULA portrait of Brett Tobey, vice president for engineering, who resigned this week.    (Photo: United Launch Alliance)
ULA portrait of Brett Tobey, vice president for engineering, who resigned this week. (Photo: United Launch Alliance)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A senior United Launch Alliance executive resigned this week after controversial remarks criticized as "ill-advised" by the company’s CEO.

News 6 partner Florida Today reports that Brett Tobey, who was ULA’s vice president for engineering, suggested it was a given that the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture would choose a Blue Origin engine for its next rocket over a competing design being developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Tobey also said ULA had declined to bid against SpaceX for an Air Force contract to launch a global positioning system satellite, because it couldn’t compete with SpaceX’s price, though ULA had previously only cited concerns about congressional language and accounting rules.

Tobey spoke Tuesday in a seminar at the University of Colorado in Boulder titled “ULA’s Competitive Transformation,” and apparently did not expect his comments, which were first reported by Space News, to be recorded or become public.

Tory Bruno, the CEO of Colorado-based ULA, on Wednesday took to Twitter to reject Tobey's remarks.

“These ill-advised statements do not reflect ULA’s views or our relationship with our valuable suppliers,” said Bruno. “We welcome competition.”

ULA later confirmed that Tobey, who joined ULA in September from Lockheed Martin, had resigned effective immediately.

The launcher of Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, that are the U.S. government’s primary ride to orbit for high-value national security and science missions, is developing a new rocket, the Vulcan, to better compete with SpaceX.

ULA already has said that Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine has a head start in the competition to serve as the Vulcan booster’s power plant, but it has not officially selected an engine.

The Air Force recently awarded contracts to Aerojet Rocketdyne to further its AR1 engine design and to ULA to advance the Vulcan concept that could include the BE-4 engine.

The contracts are part of the Air Force’s long-term goal to end reliance on the Russian RD-180 engine, which powers ULA’s Atlas V rocket, for launches of most national security spacecraft.

Tobey likened the engine competition between Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne to “having two fiancees, two possible brides,” according to Space News.

He compared Blue Origin, which is backed by billionaire Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, to a “super-rich girl,” in contrast to “poor girl” Aerojet Rocketdyne, which provides multiple engines to existing ULA rockets and will rely on the government to fund its engine development.

“The chance of Aerojet Rocketdyne beating the billionaire is pretty low,” Tobey said.

Discussing advances in rocket reusability, Tobey praised SpaceX’s landing of a Falcon 9 rocket booster in December at Cape Canaveral. But he described the company’s approach to reusability as “dumb,” since the boosters must reserve so much extra fuel for landing attempts.

With its Vulcan rocket, ULA plans to recover only a booster’s engines, a program it refers to as “smart” reuse.

ULA is currently preparing an Atlas V for a late Tuesday launch of International Space Station cargo.