Tag Archives: ULA

Atlas 5 to launch Cygnus in March

NASA has ordered Orbital ATK to use ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket for its next Cygnus cargo run to ISS in order to maximize the cargo that the capsule can deliver.

A Cygnus reached the station last month with over 5,000 pounds of supplies after launching atop Orbital ATK’s own Antares rocket. It was the first such flight for the booster in two years, a lull instigated by the 2014 explosion of an Antares and Orbital ATK’s decision to replace the main engines with a different design. But the more-powerful Atlas 5 rocket can launch over 7,700 pounds of provisions inside a Cygnus, and the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday night that NASA has pushed Orbital ATK to buy another Atlas 5 for its greater lift capacity and reliability record.

Sources told Spaceflight Now that the Atlas 5 would launch the OA-7 mission in March and that Orbital ATK was working with Kennedy Space Center to book facility time to process the Cygnus.
It was not immediately clear if NASA or Orbital ATK would pay for the extra costs associated with the Atlas 5 rocket.

This decision by NASA to favor Atlas 5 here over Antares illustrates some of the commercial weaknesses of Antares. Orbital ATK’s decision to launch the rocket from Wallops Island in Virginia had some political advantages, putting their launch facilities in the state and congressional district of legislators whose approval they were soliciting. The decision, however, limited the cargo capacity of the rocket because of the site’s higher latitude. This might also help explain why Orbital ATK has as yet failed to find any other customers for Antares, besides NASA.

I also wonder whether some political pressure from other legislators who favor ULA also helped influence this decision. The political game is brutal these days in Washington and almost nothing connected to the federal government is done anymore without some crony and corrupt political maneuvers in the background.

Atlas 5 Vandenberg launch delayed again

The ULA Atlas 5 launch of a commercial satellite at Vandenberg that has been delayed repeatedly for numerous reasons, some (wildfires) completely unrelated to the rocket, has been delayed again for five days because of “booster issues”.

The news reports do not say what these issues are.

Vandenberg launches will not resume until late October at the earliest

Because of continuing repairs following the extensive wildfires at Vandenberg, ULA’s commercial launch using its Atlas 5 rocket will not take place until late October or early November, at the earliest.

It appears once again that the repairs involve damage to the infrastructure at Vandenberg, not the launchpads or rockets.

Launches at Vandenberg remain suspended due to wildfire damage

It appears that though they had reported that the wildfires at Vandenberg Air Force Base had left the launch facilities undamaged, launches remain suspended due to necessary repairs.

Vandenberg officials have been tight-lipped about damage beyond confirming downed power lines in the area, despite unconfirmed reports in the local communities about a tracking station, weather sensor or other critical support equipment being ruined in the fire. Other unconfirmed reports mention damage to communication equipment.

ULA officials last said the launch would not occur before early October, but never released the targeted launch date as the Air Force began surveying damage and crafting a recovery plan. The Air Force remains mum about what was damaged or affected by the fires.

Space letter wars in Congress!

Turf war! A bi-partisan group of Congressmen, in response to an earlier letter by ten Republican senators questioning SpaceX’s ability to complete a thorough investigation of its September 1st launchpad explosion, have issued their own letter of support for the company.

In a letter to the heads of the Air Force, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, 24 members of Congress said that it was proper that SpaceX was leading the investigation. “Accidents are unfortunate events, and accident investigations should not be politicized,” wrote the bipartisan group led by Rep. Bill Flores (R-Tex.). “We encourage you to reject calls for your organizations to abandon established, well-considered and long-standing procedures.”

Ain’t democracy wonderful? It seems that SpaceX might have rounded up its own crony Congressmen to battle ULA’s crony Congressmen.

Republican Congressmen question SpaceX’s investigation

The knives are out: Ten Republican House members have sent a letter to the Air Force, FAA, and NASA questioning whether SpaceX should lead the investigation into its September 1 launchpad explosion.

The Congress members said the investigation responses raised “serious concerns about the authority provided to commercial providers and the protection of national space assets…. Although subject to FAA oversight, it can be asserted the investigation lacked the openness taxpayers would expect before a return-to-flight,” the letter says. “We feel strongly that the current investigation should be led by NASA and the Air Force to ensure that proper investigative engineering rigor is applied and that the outcomes are sufficient to prevent NASA and military launch mishaps in the future.”

…The letter also includes a list of questions for each agency including whether the Air Force will reconsider certification of the Falcon 9 rocket for national security launches; whether NASA will reevaluate the use of the Falcon 9 rocket for its commercial resupply and upcoming commercial crew missions; and whether the FAA would reconsider issuing licenses to SpaceX after its September launch pad explosion.

More details here, including the letter’s full text. Congressman Mike Coffman (R-Colorado), whose district interestingly includes ULA’s headquarters, is heading this attack.

I find this a typical example of why conservatives are disgusted with the Republican Party. It claims it stands for private enterprise and less regulation, but the first chance these guys get, they demand more government control in order to benefit the crony companies they support. Nothing in this letter will make SpaceX’s operations safer. The only thing any of its demands will accomplish if enforced will be to damage the company, thus aiding its competitor ULA.

Atlas 5 launch scrubbed

ULA scrubbed its Atlas 5 commercial launch today after detecting “a small ground side LH2 leak.”

Friday’s launch was proceeding to the final minutes of the countdown, prior to a decision to standdown due to a small ground side LH2 leak resulting in an ice ball forming on an umbilical. ULA CEO Tory Bruno noted this was outside of ULA’s historic experience, thus resulting in a scrub – for at least 24 hours – to resolve.

Later, a ULA source noted the next attempt would be Sunday, in order to allow time to replace a Fill and Drain (F&D) valve that was deemed to be the problem during Friday’s attempt.

I must say I am intrigued by the language used by Bruno here, especially coming so soon after SpaceX’s somewhat unprecedented launchpad explosion September 1st.

ULA announces new plan to speed up launches

The competition heats up: ULA today announced a new system for shortening the time from a customer’s initial launch contract to the actual launch of their payload.

The priorities of all of our customers include ensuring their spacecraft launches on schedule, securing the soonest possible manifest date and completing the mission with 100 percent success,” said Tory Bruno, ULA CEO and president. “To address these priorities, we have been working on this offering for more than a year, which allows our customers to launch in as few as three months from placing their order.”

It is very clear that this new system was inspired by the competition with SpaceX. It is also pretty obvious that they are making the announcement now in the hope they can grab some of SpaceX’s customers who are once again faced with delays because of the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion. It is also likely that SpaceX is pushing to get its next launch off by November in an effort to beat back ULA’s effort here.

Ain’t competition wonderful? It is so good, it will even get us to the stars.

Blue Origin engine test might delay ULA decision on Vulcan engine

ULA will delay its final decision on the engine it will use for its new Vulcan rocket until Blue Origin successfully completes a scheduled static fire engine test, originally schedule for late this year but possibly delayed until 2017.

“It’s really tied not so much to the calendar but to a technical event,” [Tory Bruno, CEO of ULA,] said of the schedule for an engine decision. “We want to have a full-scale static firing of the BE-4, so that we understand that it’s going to hit its performance and it’s going to be stable…. That may occur by the end of the year, but I could see it moving into the spring a little bit, to make sure we have enough test data and we feel confident about where we’re at,” he added.

He emphasized that the BE-4 remained the “primary path” to be used on the first stage of the Vulcan, ahead of the AR1 engine under development by Aerojet Rocketdyne. “They’re out in front,” Bruno said of the BE-4.

This engine test is not only critical for ULA, but its success will help firm up Blue Origin’s developmental schedule for its just announced New Glenn rocket.

Bruno’s comments at the link also suggest that ULA, like Arianespace, is pushing to grab some of the customers of SpaceX and Russia, both of whom are now experiencing launch delays.

ULA wins contract to launch 2020 NASA Mars rover

NASA today awarded ULA the contract to launch in 2020 its next Martian rover.

The contract is for $243 million, which isn’t cheap, but I think NASA decided to pay the extra money because they used an Atlas 5 to launch Curiosity, and they have been attempting to simplify the 2020 mission by duplicating Curiosity as much as possible.

More evidence ULA will pick Blue Origin over Aerojet Rocketdyne

In a press interview published in late July, a ULA executive confirmed that the company is going to pick Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine for its new Vulcan rocket.

ULA used a Russian engine for its expendable Atlas V booster but has long relied on U.S. suppliers such as Aerojet Rocketdyne. For Vulcan’s reusable engine, ULA is turning to Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. The company’s cutting-edge BE-4 is powered by liquid natural gas instead of kerosene or liquid hydrogen.

By partnering with a startup like Blue Origin, ULA gains other advantages. “There is a world of difference between the culture at Blue Origin and the culture at Aerojet Rocketdyne,” said [Dr. George F. Sowers, ULA’s vice president for advanced programs]. “We knew we could absorb some of their culture by osmosis, just by working with them.” That influence shows up in cross-team collaboration. “We are literally breaking down walls to create a ‘Silicon Valley’ workspace,” Sowers said.

Sowers is very careful to say nothing about the Atlas 5 and the engine that will replace the Russian engine in its first stage. ULA originally signed its deal with Blue Origin with the Atlas 5 in mind, but has not made a final decision between Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne because Congress appears to favor Aerojet Rocketdyne’s engine, and Congress is a very big gorilla you do not upset. However, their development plans for Vulcan are incremental and closely linked with the Atlas 5. They plan to introduce Vulcan piecemeal in various upgrades of Atlas 5 as they go, so if they are set on using Blue Origin’s engine in the Vulcan rocket, it probably means that they plan on using it to replace the Russian engine in Atlas 5. This interview appears to confirm this.

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.

Atlas 5 successfully launches U.S. surveillance satellite

Atlas 5

The competition heats up: A ULA Atlas 5 rocket today successfully launched a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) surveillance satellite, dubbed NROL-61.

The image on the right is courtesy of Orbital ATK. From the link above:

NROL-61, however, launched atop an Atlas V 421 rocket, a configuration that has not previously been used by the NRO. The spacecraft itself was encapsulated within an Extra-Extended Payload Fairing (XEPF) – at 14 metres (46 feet) in length the longest of three available four-metre (13-foot) diameter fairings – which has also never before been used for an NRO mission.

…The most likely explanation is that NROL-61 will be the first in a new generation of Quasar satellite; which would appear to be larger in both size and mass than its predecessors. Quasar, also known as the Satellite Data System, or SDS, is a constellation of communications satellites operated by the NRO to support its other intelligence-gathering activities; relaying data from other satellites to the ground in real-time, without having to wait for the intelligence-gathering satellites to pass over ground stations on friendly territory. If NROL-61 represents a new version of Quasar, it will be the fourth generation of the constellation.

ULA interns launch record-breaking model rocket

The competition heats up: A team of ULA interns, working in their spare time, have successfully launched the largest model rocket every built.

On Sunday (July 24), ULA launched the 50-foot-tall (15.24 meters) Future Heavy rocket out of Fort Carson Army Post, breaking the record for “the largest sport rocket launched anywhere in the world,” according to a statement from ULA. The Future Heavy is also notable because it was built entirely by company interns and their mentors. “We like [our interns] to have a very realistic experience,” ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno told Space.com at the Space Symposium meeting in Colorado Springs, Colorado, last April.

Calling it a “model rocket” really isn’t fair. The thing is big, and really ranks up there with many of the suborbital rockets NASA used to routinely fly out of Wallops Island. That ULA has provided support for this effort again suggests that the leadership of Bruno is reshaping the company into a much more innovative and competitive company.

ULA chief says Congress deal clears path to Vulcan

The competition heats up: The CEO of ULA, Tory Bruno, said in an industry publication interview today that the Congressional deal that allows the company to buy 22 more Russian engines for its Atlas 5 clears the way for their eventual transition to the Vulcan rocket and an end to dependence on those Russian engines.

The article is worth a careful read, as it also provides a very detailed look at ULA’s future plans for its Atlas 5, Delta 4 Heavy, and Vulcan rockets. This paragraph was especially interesting:

The next major milestone is determining what engine will replace the [Russian] RD-180. Washington-based Blue Origin is developing the BE-4, a privately funded Liquid Oxygen (Lox) and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) engine capable of 550,000 pounds of thrust (lbf); and California-based Aerojet Rocketdyne is creating the AR1, a government-supported Lox/Kerosene (RP-1) engine capable of 500,000lbf. Either replacement will require two engines to match the power of the RD-180. Blue Origin claims its engine, already four years into development, will be flight qualified by 2017, while Aerojet Rocketdyne, having started its development later, says the AR1 will be flight qualified by 2019. Bruno said ULA would make its decision soon.

“Sometime close to the end of the year we are going to down-select, and then move into our Critical Design Review (CDR) and start manufacturing the rocket,” he said.

I strongly suspect they want to go with Blue Origin’s engine, because it is more powerful, farther along in development, and almost certainly less expensive. The question will be whether pressure from Congress, which favors Aerojet Rocketdyne’s engine for pork barrel reasons (Congress is funding it), will force ULA to go with it instead.

ULA pinpoints cause of Atlas 5 premature shutdown

In the heat of competition: ULA has completed its investigation into the premature shutdown of the Atlas 5 first stage during its March launch of Orbital ATK’s Cygnus capsule and has corrected the problem.

An extensive review of all post-flight data observations determined that at approximately T+222 seconds, an unexpected shift in fuel pressure differential across the RD-180 Mixture Ratio Control Valve (MRCV) and a reduction in fuel flow to the combustion chamber caused an oxidizer-rich mixture of propellants and a reduction in first stage performance. The imbalanced propellant consumption rate resulted in depletion of the first stage oxidizer with significant fuel remaining at booster engine shutdown. The engine supplier has implemented a minor change to the MRCV assembly to ensure the anomaly does not occur on future flights.

Engine hot-fire testing, extensive component and assembly level testing and analyses have been performed to confirm the findings. Detailed inspections and minor hardware replacement on all engines will support the current launch manifest.

They have now scheduled the next Atlas 5 launch for June 24.

Orbital ATK delays Antares launch until August

In the heat of competition: The review of Orbital ATK’s May 31st static fire test of its Antares rocket has caused the company to delay the upgraded rocket’s first launch until August.

Additional information pointed to data on “vibrations” during the Static Fire test that could be deemed as a problem for the vehicle’s avionics. A “fix” was already understood to have been approved.

Orbital ATK, while admitting the launch is slipping from its early July launch date estimate to a date likely to be in the August timeframe, pointed to trajectory evaluations as a specific relation to the launch date deliberations. “Final trajectory shaping work is also currently underway, which is likely to result in an updated launch schedule in the August timeframe,” added Orbital ATK.

They expect to make a decision on launch date in a few weeks.

McCain agrees to compromise over Atlas 5 Russian engines

A deal struck today by Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) will allow ULA to buy 18 more Russian engines for its Atlas 5, instead of the limit of nine that McCain had previously demanded.

The deal also includes a deadline of 2022, after which no more Russian engines can be purchased, even if some of the 18 have not yet been bought.

Successful ULA Delta 4 Heavy launch today

The competition heats up: ULA today successfully launched a U.S. National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite, using what is presently the world’s most powerful rocket, the Delta 4 Heavy.

In many ways, this rocket’s launch, which you can see in the video embedded below the fold, gives a rough idea of what a Falcon Heavy launch will look like, since the rockets have somewhat similar configurations.
» Read more

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.

ULA sets dates for next Atlas 5 and Delta 4 Heavy launches

The competition heats up: ULA has finally scheduled its next Atlas 5 launch for June 24 after completing its investigation of the premature engine shutdown during the previous launch.

The link also provides information on the next Delta 4 Heavy launch, set for June 4.

Congress demands Air Force spend less and more at the same time

A House budget report has cut the Air Force launch budget while simultaneously requiring the Air Force to favor more expensive launch companies.

In addition to cutting the funding available for new launch contracts, House appropriators also want the Air Force to consider “the best value to the government” in evaluating bids.

ULA has been pushing for the best-value approach since it sat out last fall’s GPS-3 launch competition saying it couldn’t win a price shootout against SpaceX, which will launch the satellite which was awarded an $82.7 million contract last month for a May 2018 launch of a GPS-3 satellite. That contract was awarded as part of a best value source selection. “We do not yet feel we are in a position to win price-only competitions with our competitor,” Tory Bruno, ULA president and chief executive, said in a March interview with SpaceNews. “We believe we have better performance, reliability and schedule certainty.” Those traits would carry greater weight in a best-value competition.

Only our precious Congress. On one hand they cut the budget for launches because they think the Air Force is wasting money On the other they demand that the Air Force spend extra millions on launch contracts so that the company they favor, ULA, gets the work. One would almost think they do not have the nation’s interests in mind..

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