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Prospects Shaky for First Competitive EELV Award

By Caleb Henry | October 7, 2015
      GPS Air Force

      GPS satellites 2, 2R, 2F and 3 pictured over the Earth. Photo: U.S. Air Force

      [Via Satellite 10-07-2015] The first competitive contract for the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program is off to a precarious start, as vehicles from both United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX are undergoing significant changes. On Sept. 30, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) released a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a firm, fixed-price contract to launch a Global Positioning System (GPS) 3 satellite. Companies must submit proposals by Nov. 16, with the mission slated for 2018. But ULA’s supply of engines for the Atlas 5 — the company’s only competitive launch vehicle — was cut short by the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and remains severely limited by the 2016 iteration currently going through Congress.

      Speaking to reporters following the company’s 100th launch, ULA CEO Tory Bruno said the 2015 NDAA blocked 24 out of 29 RD-180 engines that the BoeingLockheed Martin joint venture had ordered from its Russian supplier. ULA obtains the engines from manufacturer NPO Energomash through the company RD Amross, but was restricted to only using engines purchased prior to Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Of the 29, the U.S. Air Force determined that only five engines were paid for and thus available for use. However, Bruno said that not only are these five engines already assigned to other missions, but that the four additional engines listed in the 2016 NDAA will not be enough to vie for National Security Space (NSS) missions.

      “Until this bill is signed I have no engines that I am able to bid into that competition or the subsequent competitions after. If this law is signed — or when this law is signed — which restricts me to four engines, that would not be sufficient engines to sustain competition through to development of an American engine replacement for the RD-180,” he said.

      “It is critical to the Air Force that we get more than one bidder,” Claire Leon, director of SMC’s Launch Enterprise Directorate, said during an Oct. 2 conference call with reporters shortly following the ULA call. “We are actively working on ways to make it possible for ULA to bid. That’s in the works at the highest levels at this point.”

      Leon said Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition William LaPlante had advocated for 18 RD-180 engines, despite the congressional decision to only allocate four. The NDAA 2016 is being used as a tentative guidepost, though it has not been signed into law, and the President is inclined to veto it, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, said during a press briefing Sept. 30.

      Without a bid from ULA, the only other company certified to launch the GPS 3 satellite is SpaceX, whose lawsuit against the Air Force’s block buy of 36 rocket cores from ULA in April 2014 effectively jumpstarted competition within EELV. However, SpaceX has evolved the Falcon 9 from the originally certified version, necessitating a certification update for the upgraded design prior to winning an award.

      “We have a process to work with SpaceX. We followed that process for the initial certification. The process allows verification for updates to the certified baseline. So we are actively working with SpaceX on updating the certification baseline from what we call the Falcon 9v1.1 to the Falcon 9 upgrade,” explained Leon. “We should be close to establishing a common understanding with SpaceX of exactly what it takes to be certified.”

      Following certification Leon said there is a flight worthiness process where the Air Force conducts a detailed design analysis. She said the Air Force will “flight-follow” at least three SpaceX launches with the upgraded Falcon 9 to verify its analysis, the company’s analysis and the performance of the rocket during launch. That flight following is required prior to launching an NSS payload. The Air Force is working with SpaceX as well to make sure the company can compete for the GPS 3 bid, for which the contract award is planned for March 2016.

      “We’ve updated certification so that they can be certified as long as they have planned work or joint work planned with the Air Force to close on a schedule that supports the launch,” said Leon.

      Regarding ULA, Leon said the company could choose to reallocate one of the five secured RD-180s, referred to as “golden engines,” for NSS launches. ULA’s ability to obtain more RD-180 engines could come from a change in the 2016 NDAA language, or a national security waiver. Leon said the GPS 3 contract provides the stepping-stones for ULA to pursue the waiver option should the company chose to bid.

      “They could submit a proposal just stating that they needed a waiver, and then that would give us the ammunition to then go back through the secretary of defense and support the need for a waiver,” she said. “There are several avenues that ULA could take.”

      Bruno said the limited access to engines is already starting to kink ULA’s supply line, since the engines take approximately 36 months to fabricate, necessitating a very long lead time. Because of this, ULA is “burning down through” its inventory, he said. Without the Atlas 5, ULA still has the Delta family of launch vehicles, but Bruno said those rockets are not competitive in the government or commercial arena, and would only been kept in play if the U.S. government wanted to use them. He said the Delta Medium will stay in production until 2018, and the Delta Heavy until the early 2020s.

      Two companies are currently working to produce domestically manufactured engines to replace the RD-180. Blue Origin is developing the BE-4, a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) engine capable of 550,000lbf, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, a liquid oxygen/kerosene engine generating 500,000lbf. Bruno said ULA plans to downselect to one engine at about this time next year. Until then, the company needs more RD-180s to compete for NSS launches, commercial launches, and to fund the development of Vulcan.

      “I am encouraged that Congress is working on this problem and trying to correct the issue that I don’t believe they intended to create in last year’s NDAA, but we are going to need some more engines,” he said. Bruno estimates ULA needs at least 14 more engines to stay competitive until the company can transition off the RD-180.

      The GPS 3 satellite to be launched is the first of nine satellites up for competition in the Air Force’s Phase 1A procurement strategy. The next solicitation will also be for a GPS 3 satellite. Leon said future RFPs will be for other NSS satellites as well, and could be for multiple launches in a single contract. She said the first nine missions do not include any necessitating the Falcon Heavy rocket, which has yet to be certified.