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US Air Force Pushes Congress to Save EELV Competition

By Caleb Henry | April 30, 2015
      SpaceX ULA USAF

      SpaceX’s Falcon 9 (left) and ULA’s Atlas 5 (right). Photos: SpaceX, ULA

      [Via Satellite 04-30-2015] The United States Air Force wants to compete as many as nine national security launches between this year and 2017, and another 25 between 2018 to 2022, according to officials’ testimonies during an April 29 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on military space programs. With confidence that SpaceX’s certification of the Falcon 9 will conclude this summer, the Air Force told Congress that it is ready to soon begin competitions, but cautioned that legislation drafted since Russia’s February 2014 invasion of Crimea could have deleterious repercussions.

      The U.S. Air Force is required to maintain assured access to space via a minimum of two distinct launch vehicles. To date that has been maintained by United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets. The introduction of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 would, in theory, raise the number to three while ULA transitions to its new launch vehicle, dubbed Vulcan. But new policies could axe the Atlas 5, which is dependent on the Russian-built RD-180 first-stage engine, by limiting ULA’s ability to procure new shipments.

      “Section 1608 of the [National Defense Authorization Act] NDAA sets restrictions on using the RD-180 for national security launches and introduces a risk that we will not be able to achieve our objective of being able to fully competitively contract beginning in 2018. Consequently we are recommending an adjustment to the language which if approved would allow the use of engines ordered but not fully paid for prior to the invasion of the Crimea,” said Deborah James, secretary of the Air Force.

      James warned that not keeping the Atlas 5 in play would quickly stifle planned competition by forcing ULA to compete against the Falcon 9 with the Delta 4.

      “We fear the law of unintended consequences may occur if we don’t change the language a little bit. We fear that we might not get to a fully competitive environment as early as we otherwise could,” she said, adding that without the Atlas 5, “SpaceX would likely win every competition” because the Delta 4 is simply not price competitive. According to General John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), the Delta 4 rocket costs approximately 30 to 50 percent more to launch than the Atlas 5.

      ULA previously announced intentions to retire the Delta 4, which lifts the heaviest of payloads, but, without the venerable Atlas 5, it would become the company’s only rocket. The joint BoeingLockheed Martin venture fell under scrutiny following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine due to its reliance on a potentially compromised foreign engine for national security launches. ULA engaged in multiple developmental studies on new engines, and later partnered with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to replace the RD-180 with American-made BE-4 engines. Aerojet Rocketdyne is also developing a liquid oxygen kerosene-fueled engine known as the AR1. However, it will require more time as the company only recently started working on it, whereas the BE-4 was quietly in the works at Blue Origin for the past three years.

      James said the Air Force is aware of five engines ULA has ready for competition within the Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 to 2022 time frame. The proposal to allow ULA to continue with engines contracted prior to Crimea would increase the number of engines from five to 18. Congress took issue with the fact that the engines were not already paid for, having been under the impression that they were bought, not contracted. Senator John McCain also took issue with multimillion dollar fees tied to RD Amross, the middleman between engine supplier NPO Energomash and ULA, accused of inflating the price of the engines.

      Hyten described the Atlas 5 as the “most beautiful rocket” he had ever seen, but admitted that seeing the Russian-built engine underneath has always irked him. “We have needed to get off that engine for a decade-plus, but we have not committed the resources until last year when the Congress gave us the resources to do that,” he said.

      When pressed on whether any other vehicles were accessible by the U.S. Air Force for competition, Hyten referred to Orbital ATK as the one other unknown variable. “Orbital ATK has built the Antares rocket. They had an accident last year that set them back. Nonetheless they still have a vision for being an element of this marketplace in the future,” he said.

      Orbital ATK, however, opted to replace the AJ-26, provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne, with another Russian engine, the RD-181, which could inhibit the company’s ability to compete for military launches with Antares.

      With the Falcon 9, SpaceX will be able to compete for the bottom third of the Air Force’s manifest, according to Hyten. Retired U.S. Air Force General Larry Welch conducted a review of the certification process, providing recommendations that culminated in a cooperative Research and Development (R&D) agreement signed this week, according to James.

      “We are confident that we will certify SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in June 2015 and this will allow SpaceX to compete for two launches which are funded in FY15, and will posture them also to compete for an additional seven missions that we project in FY16 and 17,” she said. James also confirmed the Air Force received this month a statement of intent from SpaceX to certify the Falcon Heavy, enabling the company to lift the majority, if not all, of the projected manifest.

      The Air Force has already launched one satellite with SpaceX, the tri-agency (NASA, NOAA, USAF) Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) in February 2015, providing greater experience in working together with the launch services provider. Additionally,  the Air Force also has the STP-2 mission contracted to launch on a Falcon Heavy this year.

      ULA has a backup supply of two years worth of RD-180 engines. The Vulcan rocket is planned to conduct its debut launch in 2019, with partial reusability gradually introduced in 2024. Hyten said that amending the NDAA to allow the contracted engines to be purchased would enable the Air Force to keep track with competition and transition to a new American option as efficiently as possible.

      “The 18 [engines] will get us in competition from 2018 to 2022. We hope that the new rocket is available in 2021, maybe 2022; so we’re covered, but we’ll transition off the RD-180 as soon as that rocket is available,” he said.

      In response to Congress’ assertion that the Air Force had only spent $14,000 of the $220 million allocated for a new engine, James said the agency has actually obligated $50 million to date: $37 million from FY2014 resources and $13 million from FY2015. Furthermore the Air Force intends to invest roughly $45 to 50 million more over the next six months, she said. The investments are part of a long-term plan to collaborate with multiple companies to bolster public-private partnerships.


      This article was updated at 5:01 p.m. ET on May 1, 2015