Tag Archives: Air Force

Federal bureaucracy prevents satellite launch

We’re here to help you! A suite of 8 private commercial cubesats that the Air Force had agreed to launch as secondary payloads on the August 26 launch of a Minotaur rocket were blocked from launch by FAA bureaucracy.

The “interagency partner” that appeared to raise objections was the Federal Aviation Administration, which issued the launch license for the mission. “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not approve Orbital ATK’s request for a license modification to include commercial cubesats on the upcoming ORS-5 launch mission,” Guthrie said. “As a result, Orbital ATK decided not to include commercial cubesats on the launch.”

Asked if the FAA placed any conditions or restrictions on the ORS-5 mission launched on the Minotaur 4, agency spokesman Hank Price said the FAA issued Orbital ATK a license Feb. 10 to launch government payloads on the Minotaur 4 from Cape Canaveral. The launch license contains any and all conditions on the license, Price said, and the FAA does not comment on the “existence or status of launch license applications or modifications until the FAA makes a final decision regarding those requests.”

Industry sources believe the FAA never formally rejected a proposed license modification for the cubesats because it did not go through the official process, but it was informally clear that the agency would have rejected such a modification had it been formally submitted.

Spire officials are trying to figure out why there was any issue at all about commercial cubesats on this launch. “If Spire chose this launch in the place of another commercial offering, I would understand the industry’s concern about fair competition,” Barna said. “But no existing U.S. launch company or new entrant was offering a similar launch. The fundamental intent of the policy is to keep competition fair, and competition just wasn’t a factor here.”

Spire’s problems here demonstrates the difficulties smallsat companies have getting their satellites in orbit, which explains the emergence of a new smallsat rocket industry. The company’s difficulties also illustrates why the launch industry should always be opposed to giving too much regulatory power to government. In this case it really appears that the launch license was denied merely because the bureaucrats involved with approving it at the FAA simply didn’t want to bother dealing with it.

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Five satellite Air Force contract up for bid

Capitalism in space: The Air Force has announced that it will be soliciting bids from SpaceX and ULA for a 5-satellite launch contract.

Claire Leon, director of the Launch Enterprise Directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, told reporters that grouping launches together was an effort to streamline and speed the acquisition process at a time when the national security sector is demanding ever-increasing access to space. “By doing five at once, it makes our acquisition more efficient and it allows the contractors to put in one proposal,” she said.

This grouping however might make it impossible for SpaceX to win the contract, as the company’s Falcon 9 rocket might not be capable of launching all five satellites, and its Falcon Heavy has not yet flown the three times necessary before the Air Force will consider using it.

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ULA wins Air Force launch contract

Capitalism in space: The Air Force has awarded ULA a $191 million launch contract in only the third competitively bid Air Force contract in decades.

The Air Force put the STP-3 launch up for bid in September 2016, giving SpaceX and ULA until December to submit proposals. It’s just the third competitively-bid national security space launch contract after an era where ULA — a joint venture between defense industry giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin — was the government’s sole source for launches.

The effort is part of the Air Force’s “Phase 1A,” an effort to “reintroduce a competitive procurement environment” into the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, the service said. This particular phase is set to cover 15 competitively-bid launches through 2019, at which point the military hopes to have several launch providers as options.

SpaceX won the first two launch contracts, including a GPS 3 launch that was awarded in March.

This contract award is not as competitive as they make it seem. I suspect that if the Air Force was required to take the lowest bid, SpaceX would have won, since its launch prices are far less than $191 million. Instead, I think the Air Force gave this contract to ULA because SpaceX had won the previous two bids, and they wanted to give some business to ULA in order to keep that company viable.

In the short run, this policy will keep ULA above water. In the long run, the company is in serious trouble if it can’t lower its launch prices significantly.

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Air Force budget reveals cost differences between ULA and SpaceX

Eric Berger at Ars Technica has found that the most recent Air Force budget provides a good estimate of the price ULA charges the military for its launches.

According to the Air Force estimate, the “unit cost” of a single rocket launch in fiscal year 2020 is $422 million, and $424 million for a year later.

This is a complex number to unpack. But based upon discussions with various space policy experts, this is the maximum amount the Air Force believes it will need to pay, per launch, if United Launch Alliance is selected for all of its launch needs in 2020. ULA launches about a half-dozen payloads for the Air Force in a given year, on variants of its rockets. Therefore, the 2020 unit cost likely includes a mix of mostly Atlas V rockets (sold on the commercial market for about $100 million) and perhaps one Delta rocket launch (up to $350 million on the commercial market for a Heavy variant).

In other words, the $422 million estimate per launch is the most they will pay. Atlas 5 launches will certainly be less, about $100 to $150 million, while the Falcon 9 will likely be under $100 million. What they are doing is budgeting high so they guarantee they have the money they need to pay for the most expensive launches, usually on the Delta Heavy.

From my perspective, they are budgeting far too high, and if I was in Congress I would insist that this number be reduced significantly, especially considering this Air Force statement on page 109 of the budget document [pdf]:

The Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) agreed to a coordinated strategy for certification of New Entrants to launch payloads in support of NSS and other USG requirements which has so far resulted in the certification of one New Entrant. The Air Force continues to actively work with potential New Entrants to reliably launch NSS requirements. The Government may award early integration contracts to ensure each potential offeror’s launch system is compatible with the intended payload. Beginning in Fiscal Year 2018, the Air Force will compete all launch service procurements for each mission where more than one certified provider can service the required reference orbit. [emphasis mine]

The “New Entrant” is of course SpaceX. They are also saying that they are going to encourage competitive bidding now on all future launch contracts.

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Air Force awards SpaceX contract to launch next X-37B mission

Capitalism in space: The Air Force has awarded SpaceX the contract to launch the next X-37B mission, presently scheduled to launch in August.

The contract amount was not announced, but it certainly is going to be less than ULA charged for its own launches of the X-37B. Also, this launch is scheduled only two months hence, which means SpaceX has to somehow wedge it into its already crowded schedule.

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Did the Pentagon give ULA $27.4 million for work already done?

Corruption: It appears that a Department of Defense $27.4 million contract awarded to ULA on May 16 to develop new avionics for its rockets was for work already completed by the company.

The government award to ULA reinforces the notion that, traditionally in aerospace, the government pays for rocket upgrades. But it is also curious because of its timing—for work to be completed two years from now. Based upon information in an article written by two ULA engineers and published in Advances in the Astronautical Sciences Guidance, Navigation and Control, the avionics system has already been upgraded. Moreover, the February 5, 2016 launch of a GPS satellite for the Air Force marked the first launch of the common avionics system.

“The launch of GPS IIF-12 in February 2016 represents the culmination of several years of development work to update avionics hardware and flight software as well as simulation and test environment tools,” the research article states. “Common avionics addresses the challenge of parts obsolescence any program with the longevity of (this one) must face. ULA has taken advantage of this opportunity to design and produce a more affordable solution for vehicle control that will also expand the capability of our launcher fleet.”

A call into the Air Force for an explanation resulted in no response at all.

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Air Force successfully tests ICBM interceptor

The Air Force today successfully shot down a dummy ICBM missile it had launched from the western Pacific.

As described prior to the test:

The U.S. will launch an ICBM-class target from the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands and a ground-based interceptor from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. If successful, the “kill vehicle,” or intercept, will collide with the ICBM test target mid-course over the Pacific Ocean… This will be the 18th test of the ground-based interceptor. The last one, in June 2014, was the first success since 2008. The system is nine for 17 since 1999 with other types of target missiles. An ICBM target has never been tested before.

I should note that this successful test is final proof that Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or “Star Wars” as the leftist press contemptuously called it in their unwavering belief that it could not work, is feasible and can work.

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Boeing wins DARPA contract to build reusable first stage spaceplane

Capitalism in space: DARPA has selected Boeing to build its XS-1 spaceplane concept, a reusable first stage that would launch vertically and land on a runway.

Boeing will develop its “Phantom Express” vehicle for phases 2 and 3 of DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane 1 (XS-1) program, which has the goal of performing 10 flights in 10 days to demonstrate responsive and low-cost launch. Phase 2 will cover development of the vehicle and ground tests though 2019, with a series of 12 to 15 test flights planned for phase 3 in 2020.

DARPA spokesman Rick Weiss said the value of the award to Boeing is $146 million. The award is structured as a public-private partnership, with Boeing also contributing to the overall cost of the program, but Boeing declined to disclose its contribution. “As it’s a competitive market, we do not plan to disclose our investment,” Boeing Phantom Works spokeswoman Cheryl Sampson said. “We are making a significant commitment to help solve an enduring challenge to reduce the cost of space access.”

It makes sense that Boeing won the contract, since that company also built the X-37B and knows how to do this. Moreover, with this contract it appears that DARPA is following in the footsteps of NASA initial cargo and crew commercial contracts, where the companies were required to commit some of their own capital for development, the costs were kept low, and the resulting spacecraft belonged to the company to market to the launch industry.

In this case, Boeing is going to have a first stage that it can combine with many other available upper stages to produce a rocket that can compete both with SpaceX and Blue Origin.

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Air Force agreement with ULA expires

The 2005 agreement between the Air Force and ULA that established the ULA launch monopoly that was only broken by SpaceX in the past two years has apparently expired.

David Hardy, associate deputy under secretary of the Air Force for space, and the deputy director, principal Defence Department space advisor staff, said on 9 May that he was the compliance officer for the agreement and that the Pentagon no longer has oversight duties now that the agreement has expired. He told Jane’s these oversight duties included compliance requirements to what communications and relationships the two parent companies, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, could have with ULA, their joint venture.

It is very unclear how this will effect ULA. Will it continue to get the $800 million subsidy, as outlined by the agreement? It even appears from the article that the partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin might be dead.

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Private company builds high resolution space radar facility in Texas

Capitalism in space: A private company, Leo Labs, has built a high resolution space radar facility in Midland, Texas, aimed at providing satellite companies precise location information of their orbiting satellites as well as the space junk that might threaten them.

It is not clear from the article or the company’s webpage whether they are funded by the federal government or by private capital investment. Up until now this data has been routinely gathered by the U.S. military, though obtaining it has I think been somewhat difficult due to security concerns. It seems this company is trying to compete with the government in offering a better data stream that is also easier to obtain.

Posted over Poland during my return flight from Israel.

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ULA slashes launch prices for Atlas 5

Capitalism in space: In order to compete with SpaceX ULA announced this week that it will cut its launch price for the Atlas 5 rocket by one third.

United Launch Alliance has dropped the price of its workhorse Atlas 5 rocket flights by about one-third in response to mounting competition from rival SpaceX and others, the company’s chief executive said on Tuesday. “We’re seeing that price is even more important than it had been in the past,” Tory Bruno, chief executive of United Launch Alliance, or ULA, said during an interview at the U.S. Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. “We’re dropping the cost of Atlas almost every day. Atlas is now down more than a third in its cost,” Bruno said.

It appears that they have discovered that the prime reason they lost their bid of an Air Force GPS satellite launch to SpaceX was because their price was too high.

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Air Force willing to use re-used Falcon 9 first stages

Capitalism in space: The head of the Air Force’s space division said yesterday that they would be willing to launch satellites using Falcon 9 used first stages.

“I would be comfortable if we were to fly on a reused booster,” General John “Jay” Raymond told reporters at the U.S. Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. “They’ve proven they can do it. … It’s going to get us to lower cost.”

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Orbital ATK developing new rocket

Capitalism in space: Orbital ATK is developing a new rocket, based on the solid rocket technology it provided for the space shuttle, to compete with SpaceX and ULA.

Two versions of the rocket are planned. The medium-lift variant will have a two-segment, solid-fuel first-stage motor and a single-segment, solid second. The heavy lifter will have a four-segment first stage and a single-segment second. Both versions can be outfitted with strap-on boosters for extra lift capacity, Orbital representatives said.

To complete the rocket’s development the company says it needs to win a follow-up contract that the Air Force has been issuing to help ween the U.S. from the use of Russian rocket engines.

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ULA gets three launch contracts

Capitalism in space: ULA last week won three launch contracts, two from the Air Force and one from NASA.

Both rockets are part of the existing EELV Block Buy between the Air Force and United Launch Alliance. The mission assignments were announced Friday by the Pentagon. The missions exceed the lift performance of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets that has been certified by the Air Force for national security payloads, making ULA the only provider available to execute these heavy launches.

In other government-launch news, NASA said last month that the second satellite in the next-generation era of U.S. civilian weather observatories will be launched atop an Atlas 5-401 rocket. The Atlas 5 beat out the Falcon 9 in a competition to win the rights to launch the Joint Polar Satellite System spacecraft No. 2 in 2021 from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

For SpaceX to truly compete with ULA they need to get the Falcon Heavy flying.

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X-37B sets new orbial record

The X-37B presently in orbit this weekend set a record for the longest in-orbit flight for the Air Force’s fleet of two ships.

As of today (March 25), the X-37B has spent 675 days on its latest Earth-circling mission, which is known as Orbital Test Vehicle-4 (OTV-4). The previous record was 674 days, set during OTV-3, which lasted from December 2012 to October 2014. It’s unclear what the new duration record will end up being; most X-37B activities and payloads are classified, and the Air Force has historically been tight-lipped about landing plans.

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SpaceX wins another Air Force launch contract

The competition heats up: SpaceX has been awarded a $96.5 million contract to launch an Air Force GPS satellite.

This price is about $14 million more than the last SpaceX Air Force launch contract. That’s probably because SpaceX was trying to undercut ULA’s price by as little as possible so that they could increase their profit. Until there are others in the business who can compete with SpaceX’s prices, the company is sitting pretty in any competitive bidding situation. Their costs are less, so they can always beat everyone else’s prices, while maximizing their profits.

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Decision on new Orbital ATK rocket expected in 2018

The competition heats up? Orbital ATK says it will decide whether it will introduce a new commercial rocket sometime in early 2018.

Orbital ATK has released few details about what is known only as its “Next-Generation Launcher.” The vehicle would use solid-fuel lower stages based on space shuttle solid rocket motor segments developed by the company, as well as solid strap-on boosters. A liquid-oxygen, liquid-hydrogen upper stage would use a version of Blue Origin’s BE-3 engine that company is currently flying on its New Shepard suborbital vehicle.

The rocket’s design has at least superficial similarities to a vehicle concept called Liberty that ATK proposed prior to its merger with Orbital Sciences Corporation. Liberty, with a five-segment shuttle solid rocket booster first stage and a second stage derived from the Ariane 5 core stage provided by Astrium, was itself a commercial spinoff of the cancelled Ares 1 rocket from NASA’s Constellation program. ATK proposed Liberty for NASA’s commercial crew program but failed to win funding.

The decision itself will be based on whether the Air Force remains interested. At the present time the Air Force is investing about half the capital required to develop the rocket. If the Air Force backs out, Orbital ATK will decide against the rocket. If the Air Force support remains firm, they will go ahead with development. Essentially, this story is Orbital ATK lobbying to keep the Air Force support going.

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New auto-destruct system to increase launch rate

The competition heats up: A new auto-destruct system operating by computer, using GPS, and installed on each rocket should allow the launch rate in Florida to ramp up significantly.

Up until now it took several days to reconfigure the ground-based radar facilities. This system, first used on the most recent Falcon 9 launch, does not require this. It also involves fewer people to operate it. They expect that they will soon be able to launch up to 48 missions per year, some on the same day.

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X-37B about to land?

Because of sudden Air Force preparations of the old space shuttle runway at Cape Canaveral it is now believed that the X-37B spacecraft presently in orbit for the past 21 months is about to come home.

The spacecraft has not yet landed, but recent orbital changes spotted by amateurs as well as runway preparations at the Cape all point to an end to the mission.

In preparation for landing at Kennedy, teams practiced landing drills and post-landing safing operations as well as emergency drills at the SLF [Shuttle Landing Facility] last week.

The X-37B landing also helps explain the until now curious delay to SpaceX’s launch of the SpX-10 resupply mission for the International Space Station which had originally been scheduled for the 14th as well – the opening day of the X-37B’s landing attempts at Kennedy. When the SpaceX mission was delayed, it was stated that range assets necessary for the return to launch site landing of the Falcon 9 core stage were not available from 14-17 February, while all other range assets necessary for launch were available during that window.

While the secretive nature of the mission precludes any exact knowledge of the ground track the X-37B will take, a descending node reentry over large portions of the United States is the likely option given the landing window for the restricted air space in and around the Kennedy Space Center.

If the X-37B lands this week, it will have completed the fourth such mission from the Air Force’s known fleet of two spacecraft. One did flights 1 and 3, while the other did flights 2 and 4.

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Lockheed Martin screwup delays delivery of Air Force GPS satellites

Our government in action! Incompetence by a Lockheed Martin subcontractor will delay the delivery of 32 new Air Force GPS satellites and will likely cost the government millions.

Lockheed has a contract to build the first 10 of the satellites designed to provide a more accurate version of the Global Positioning System used for everything from the military’s targeting of terrorists to turn-by-turn directions for civilians’ smartphones. The program’s latest setback may affect a pending Air Force decision on whether to open the final 22 satellites to competition from Lockheed rivals Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp. “This was an avoidable situation and raised significant concerns with Lockheed Martin subcontractor management/oversight and Harris program management,” Teague said in a Dec. 21 message to congressional staff obtained by Bloomberg News.

The parts in question are ceramic capacitors that have bedeviled the satellite project. They take higher-voltage power from the satellite’s power system and reduce it to a voltage required for a particular subsystem. Last year, the Air Force and contractors discovered that Harris hadn’t conducted tests on the components, including how long they would operate without failing, that should have been completed in 2010.

Now, the Air Force says it found that Harris spent June to October of last year doing follow-up testing on the wrong parts instead of samples of the suspect capacitors installed on the first three satellites. Harris “immediately notified Lockheed and the government” after a post-test inspection, Teague said in his message.

So, the subcontractor first failed to do the required tests, then it did the tests on the wrong parts. Sounds like the kind of quality control problems we have seen recently in Russia and Japan.

The worst part? The contract is a cost-plus contract, which means the government has to absorb the additional costs for fixing the screw-up, not Lockheed Martin or its subcontractor.

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The X-37B flies on

The Air Force’s X-37B reusable space vessel is now approaching 600 days in orbit on its second space mission, and is only two and a half months away from setting a new record.

There is as yet no word on when it will return to Earth, though there are rumors that when it does return it will do so at the Kennedy Space Flight Center and not at Vandenberg in California.

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Successful Delta 4 launch of Air Force satellite

The competition heats up: ULA’s Delta 4 tonight successfully launched an Air Force communications satellite.

ULA definitely can be proud of it almost perfect launch record. The Delta 4 though is very expensive, which is why they are slowly phasing it out in favor of the Atlas 5, which in turn will eventually be replaced by Vulcan.

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SpaceX explosion will not effect its Air Force certification

The competition heats up: An Air Force official today said that, based on its ongoing experience with SpaceX during the investigation of its September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion, they do not expect any change in SpaceX’s certification that allows it to bid on Air Force satellite contracts.

The Air Force official also noted that the damage to the launchpad was “moderate” and was “definitely repairable.”

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ULA and SpaceX to compete for GPS launch

The competition heats up: ULA and SpaceX will likely face-off for the right to launch the Air Force’s next GPS satellite.

SpaceX won the last GPS launch with an unopposed bid of $83 million. ULA has said that their average price for an Air Force launch under the EELV program has been $225 million. I suspect that their bid here will be significantly less than that.

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Elon Musk to meet with Defense Secretary

The competition heats up: A private meeting to discuss modern innovation between Elon Musk and Defense Secretary Ash Carter has been scheduled for Wednesday.

Ash Carter, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, and Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, will discuss innovation June 8 in a private meeting, the Pentagon’s top spokesman said. “Elon Musk is one of the most innovative minds in this country and the secretary, as you know, has been reaching out to a number of members of the technology community to get their ideas, their feedback, find out what’s going on in the world of innovation,” Peter Cook, the Pentagon’s press secretary said during a June 6 briefing. “The secretary’s had a number of meetings with business leaders and innovation leaders in particular out in Silicon Valley, other parts of the country, and I think that’s his goal here: to hear directly from Elon Musk on some of these issues.”

The meeting is private, which means an agenda or discussion items are generally not released. More details were not immediately available.

I am sure about one thing: This meeting is going to make the corporate board of ULA very nervous.

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