HARLINGEN, Texas – Rocket manufacturer and launch service provider United Launch Alliance will be closing its operations in Harlingen by the end of the year.

For over a decade, ULA, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, has been building components for its Atlas V rocket next to Valley International Airport. Prior to that, the facility manufactured parts for the Atlas I rocket under General Dynamics.

The closure comes as ULA retires the Atlas V rocket after congressional concerns were raised about its Russian-made engine, the RD-180, and competition with SpaceX necessitated a more cost-effective model.

The Atlas V was one of the primary rockets used for the Department of Defense’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program (now the National Security Space Launch program), which launched military and intelligence satellites into space. It was also used in different missions for NASA and commercial enterprises like satellite internet. However, following Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, sanctions were placed on the RD-180 and a Senate hearing was held to review the EELV program and invite competition to lower costs.

The rockets continued to be made through exemptions after DOD heads like General John E. Hyten, former commander of the Air Force Space Command (now the U.S. Space Force), argued that America’s safety and security were at risk without reliable replacements. In a 2015 hearing, titled “Assuring National Security Space: Investing in American Industry to End Reliance on Russian Rocket Engines,” Hyten and other experts explained that scheduled launches would be deeply impacted until other models were designed, tested and manufactured to replace those built with Russian engines, which

would take years and severely limit the U.S.’s access to space. Government contacts were still awarded, but companies were directed to invest in alternatives.

ULA partnered with Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin for their new Vulcan Centaur rocket, which will use Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine and replace the Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy rockets in their line.

The last of the Atlas V’s launches is slated for 2025, but manufacturing will be completed in Harlingen by December 2023. A spokeswoman for ULA says about 100 workers at the facility will be affected. Employees were offered transfers to their sites in Decatur, Alabama; Pueblo, Colorado; Denver, Colorado; and Cape Canaveral, Florida. All Vulcan Centaur production will be done in Decatur, and an inaugural launch is expected this year.

Harlingen Mayor Norma Sepulveda says that while any business loss is serious, she doesn’t foresee the “phenomenal” space being vacant for long.

“In a time where throughout the Rio Grande Valley buildings are needed and there is not one … that is at that caliber and ready to go, really I don’t anticipate any issues on being able to fill that,” said Sepulveda.

ULA anticipates keeping their lease until mid-2024 and using the building for storage. Still, the city has already entertained talks to find a tenant.

“We want to be proactive,” said Sepulveda. “We have been blessed to have great communication with ULA. They’ve been very transparent in their transition, and so we want to work with them to ensure that the moment that they have completely vacated that we already have someone waiting and in line.”

Considering its proximity to the airport, Sepulveda says that it would be “a dream to have aviation,” but is open to other endeavors. And, that goes for all businesses wanting to come into the city.

“If you want to build and you want to make sure that you’re going to have a partner within the city, do it in Harlingen,” said Sepulveda.

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