Tag Archives: ULA

ULA successfully launches surveillance satellite

Capitalism in space: It appears that ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket has successfully launched a National Reconnaissance Office surveillance satellite into orbit.

The reason I am qualifying the success of the launch at this moment is that, because of the national security nature of the payload, they will only release details about the success of the final orbital maneuvers long after they have been completed. Right now these details are blacked out. Update: the launch was successful.

ULA has another launch of an NRO satellite scheduled for October, a date not yet determined. Right now, the U.S. has had 20 launches in 2017, far more than any other nation, with SpaceX’s 13 launches comprising the bulk.


ULA delays California launch because of Florida hurricane

Because some of its employees needed for a California launch in next week live in Florida, ULA has decided to delay that launch so that those employees can focus on preparing for and recovering from Hurricane Irma in Florida.

What I find interesting about this story is that it reveals that ULA, unlike SpaceX, apparently does not have more than one launch team, even though their staffing has historically been much higher. This limits their ability to do frequent launches, as well as launches from both coasts.


ULA’s Atlas 5 successfully launches NASA communications satellite

Capitalism in space: ULA this morning successfully launched NASA TDRS-M communications satellite, following a several week delay caused by an accident during satellite preparation that forced the replacement of the satellite’s antenna.

This was ULA’s fifth launch for 2017, which is behind the once-a-month pace they have maintained for the previous five years.


Commercial lunar mission gives launch contract to ULA

Capitalism in space: Astrobotic, a private company planning to put a lander on the Moon by 2019, has awarded its launch contract to ULA.

This initial Peregrine lunar lander will fly 77 pounds (35 kilograms) of customer payloads from six nations either above or below the spacecraft’s deck, depending on specific needs. The autonomous landing will use cameras, guidance computing and five Aerojet Rocketdyne-made hypergolic engines to set the lander down on four shock-absorbing legs.

It will stand 6 feet tall (1.8 meters) and have a diameter of 8 feet (2.5 meters).Subsequent missions envision scaling up to payload masses of 585 pounds (265 kilograms). Markets range from scientific instruments to placing mementos on the Moon.

This company had been competing for the Google Lunar X-Prize, but pulled out of the competition when it realized it couldn’t launch by the end of 2018. It continued development, however, and apparently has gathered enough customers to pay for its launch in 2019.


The damage and repair of TDRS-M creates complicated scheduling problems

Because of the launch delay caused by the accident that damaged the antenna of NASA’s TDRS-M communication satellite, requiring its replacement, the agency is now faced with a cascading series of scheduling problems.

They are now aiming for an August 10 launch of TDRS-M on a ULA Atlas 5. This will then force a delay in the August 12 launch of a Dragon capsule to ISS to August 14, which can’t be delayed past August 16 because of a scheduled Russian spacewalk on ISS that must happen on August 17 because it involves the release of two satellites. Making things even more complicated is Dragon’s cargo, which includes mice for a rodent experiment. If it doesn’t occur before August 16, the mice will then have to be replaced with fresh mice, causing further delays.

There is then even the chance that these scheduling problems might impact SpaceX’s scheduled August 28’s launch of the X-37B, as well as ULA’s scheduled August 31 launch of surveillance satellite.

One additional tidbit: This Dragon will be the last unused cargo capsule. All future SpaceX cargo missions will use previously flown capsules.

I should add that these scheduling issues illustrate starkly the growing need for more launch sites. There is money to be made here, fulfilling this need.


NASA and Boeing to replace damaged antenna on NASA satellite

Due to an accident during satellite launch preparations, NASA and Boeing are planning to replace a damaged antenna on NASA’s TDRS-M satellite, used by NASA mainly for communications between the ground and ISS.

The update at the link however says nothing whether the satellite will still launch on August 3, as presently scheduled. Nor have they released any information about the accident itself.


Sierra Nevada picks ULA’s Atlas 5 for first two Dream Chaser cargo flights

Capitalism in space: Sierra Nevada has awarded ULA the contract for the first two cargo flights of Dream Chaser to ISS.

The announcement sets Dream Chaser’s first cargo flight to the International Space Station for launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, in 2020. A second ISS cargo flight is contracted to lift off the next year. “ULA is an important player in the market and we appreciate their history and continued contributions to space flights and are pleased to support the aerospace community in Colorado and Alabama,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems.

Financial terms of the contract were not disclosed.


NASA communications satellite damaged during launch prep

A NASA TDRS communications satellite, scheduled for a August 3 launch on a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, was damaged on July 14 while it was undergoing final preparations for launch.

Though the issue apparently involves one of the satellite’s main antennas, it is unclear what happened exactly or how extensive the damage was. Furthermore, this article about the incident notes that an earlier incident had also occurred during shipping.

It is understood this latest incident is not related to a ‘close call’ that NASA was investigating earlier in the flow. That incident involved the spacecraft’s shipping container – containing environmental instrumentation – which slid a couple of feet on the trailer it was being winched on to.

If I was a customer who might want to buy the launch services of ULA, I would demand detailed information about why these incidents happened, including what measures are being taken to prevent them from occurring again.


First Starliner manned flight delayed to late 2018

Boeing has revealed that the first manned flight of its commercial Starliner capsule will likely be delayed a few more months to late 2018.

The latest confirmed schedules from NASA show the uncrewed mission, dubbed the Orbital Flight Test (OFT), slated for No Earlier Than June 2018, followed quickly in August 2018 by the crewed flight test.

However, comments made by Chris Ferguson last month at the Paris Air Show seem to indicate that the crewed flight test is moving from its August timeframe. According to Mr. Ferguson, Director of Crew and Mission Operations for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, the first Starliner crewed test flight is aiming for “last quarter of 2018” – which would be a shift of two to five months into the October to December 2018 timeframe.

The unmanned test flight, however, remains set for a June 18, 2018 launch.


XCOR layoffs due to loss of ULA contract

Capitalism in space: The layoffs at XCOR this week that essentially shut the company down were the due to ULA cancelling its upper stage engine contract with the company.

The primary impetus for the layoffs, Acting CEO and XCOR Board member Michael Blum told me, is the loss of a contract for engine development that the company had with United Launch Alliance. “The proceeds should have been enough to fund the prototype of Lynx [the company’s planned spacecraft], but ULA decided they’re not going to continue funding the contract. So we find ourselves in a difficult financial situation where we need to raise money or find joint developments to continue.” ULA declined to comment.


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.


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.


Blue Origin to build its rocket engines in Alabama

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin announced today that it will build its BE-4 rocket engine factory in Alabama.

There is one caveat. They will only commit to the factory once they have won their contract to build the BE-4 engine for ULA’s Vulcan rocket. And that contract is not yet awarded.

Obviously, this decision has political components. By picking Alabama, Blue Origin hopes to blunt the political favoritism in Alabama to Aerojet Rocketdyne’s rocket engine, thus improving their chances of winning the ULA contract.


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.


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.


Engine test of Blue Origin BE-4 engine goes bad

Capitalism n space: Blue Origin today revealed that an engine test of its BE-4 rocket engine, intended for sale to ULA as well as the basis for their own New Glenn rocket, went wrong.

In a rare update, the Blue Origin space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos reported that it lost a set of powerpack test hardware for its BE-4 rocket engine over the weekend, but added that such a setback is “not unusual” during development. “That’s why we always set up our development programs to be hardware-rich,” the company tweeted today. “Back into testing soon.”

The announcement was via a tweet, and they have released no additional details.


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.


ULA successfully launches Cygnus to ISS

Capitalism in space: ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket today sucessfully launched Orbital ATK’s Cygnus freighter to ISS.

This success ends a month-long delay for the Atlas 5, which was supposed to put this Cygnus capsule in orbit last month. Hydraulic problems in the rocket and ground systems had to be fixed first.


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.


ULA prepares to choose engine for Vulcan

Capitalism in space: ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno announced at a space conference this week that should Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine pass its testing phase his company will be prepared to select it for their Vulcan rocket.

Bruno also said that no decision has yet been made, and that Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 engine remains an option, though it is 18 to 24 months behind in development.


ULA reduces workforce at Vandenberg

Capitalism in space: In an effort to save costs ULA is reducing its workforce at Vandenberg by 48.

The company has been aggressively trying to streamline its operations to better compete against SpaceX. This reduction was expected, and based upon what I saw when I toured Vandenberg a few years ago, entirely justified. While SpaceX’s operations then looked lean and simple, ULA’s set up appeared a bit inefficient.


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.


Atlas 5/Cygnus launch delayed until mid-April

ULA has delayed its next Atlas 5 launch to send a Cygnus cargo capsule to ISS until mid-April.

Gatens said NASA was now expecting the Cygnus to launch to the station no earlier than the middle of April. “The Orbital launch, the next launch, has slipped due to an investigation of a hydraulic leak in the booster engine compartment that’s in work,” she said. “There are some components being replaced. The investigation is going on and we’re currently targeting no earlier than, probably, a mid-April launch.”

ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said March 28 that a new launch date has not been set yet for the mission. “Additional information will be provided once testing to resolve the booster hydraulic issue is complete,” she said.

The launch was initially planned for mid-March. This delay has forced NASA to delay a spacewalk because it involves installing equipment that the Cygnus capsule is bringing to ISS.


Atlas 5/Cygnus launch delayed again

ULA has now delayed the launch of its Atlas 5 rocket, taking Cygnus to ISS, indefinitely because of the discovery of another hydraulic issue, this time with the booster.

This is the third time hydraulic issues have delayed the launch, the second time those problems were related to the booster itself.


Atlas 5/Cygnus launch delayed until next week due to technical issue

The launch of the next Cygnus freighter to ISS has been delayed by ULA until next week in order to fix “a hydraulic issue found on ground support equipment.”

The launch had been delayed previously because of a hydraulic issue in the rocket itself.


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.


Lockheed Martin abandons Athena rocket

Lockheed Martin has decided to shutdown its Athena rocket, and instead focus on flying its Atlas 5 rocket, even after ULA’s transitions to the new Vulcan rocket.

They say they will not retire Atlas until 2023, when the final version of Vulcan is expected to fly.


Congress micromanages rocket development at ULA

Corrupt Congress: Even though ULA favors Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine for its Vulcan rocket, various elected officials in Alabama are pushing the company to use Aeroject Rocketdyne’s AR-4 engine instead.

At the end of February, two US representatives, Mike Rogers of Alabama [Republican] and Mac Thornberry of Texas [Republican], decided to push a little harder. On February 28, they sent a letter to Lisa Disbrow, the acting secretary of the US Air Force, and James MacStravic, who is performing the duties of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. In addition to reiterating a desire that ULA continue to fly a second rocket, the Delta IV Heavy, the letter urges the Pentagon officials to be skeptical about the BE-4 engine.

“The United States Government (USG) must have a hands-on, decision-making role… in any decision made by United Launch Alliance to down-select engines on its proposed Vulcan space launch system, especially where one of the technologies is unproven at the required size and power,” the letter states. “If ULA plans on requesting hundreds of millions of dollars from the USG for development of its launch vehicle and associated infrastructure, then it is not only appropriate but required that the USG have a significant role in the decision-making concerning the vehicle.” The letter then goes on to say the Air Force should not give any additional funding to ULA, other than for current launch vehicles, until the company provides “full access, oversight of, and approval rights over decision-making” in its choice of contractors for the engines on Vulcan.

The article also mentions porkmaster Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), who also favors Aerojet Rocketdyne because they say they will build it in Alabama. Note also that these elected officials are not only trying to pick the winner in the private competition between these two rocket engines, they also want to force ULA to keep using the Delta rocket, even though it is very expensive and not competitive with the newer rockets being developed by other companies. And their only reason for doing so is because they provide jobs for their districts.

This one story illustrates perfectly the corruption that permeates both parties in Congress. While it is more likely that Democrats will play this pork game, there are plenty of corrupt Republicans who play it as well. These petty dictators all think they have the right to interfere in the private efforts of Americans, whether it involves building a new rocket or buying health insurance. And all we get from this is a poorer nation and a bankrupt federal government.


Aerojet Rocketdyne sets record testing new rocket engine

The competition heats up: In recent static fire tests of its new AR-1 rocket engine Aerojet Rocketdyne set a record for the highest chamber pressure for any American engine using oxygen and kerosene.

They hope to convince ULA to use this engine in its Atlas 5 rocket to replace the Russian engine they presently use. At the moment, though ULA has made no commitment, it appears however that the company is favoring Blue Origin’s engine instead. That Congress favors Aerojet Rocketdyne is their one ace in the hole, since Congress controls the purse strings.

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