Tag Archives: ULA

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.

ULA lets the press see part of SLS

Link here. The upper stage of SLS is undergoing its final testing in Michoud prior to shipment to Florida, and ULA had a press event to show it off.

“This is the first piece of integrated flight hardware for the SLS system to be shipped down to the Cape in preparation for our very first launch,” said Jerry Cook, Deputy SLS Program Manager for NASA. Cook noted that the ICPS test article is currently undergoing stress and load tests at Marshall.

The completion of the ICPS is yet another landmark in SLS’ development, though some contend it’s still a drawing-board vehicle. John Shannon, Boeing’s Vice President and General Manager of the SLS Program, disagrees. “The SLS has, in various forms, been called a paper rocket […] and, if I think you look to your right, you’ll see that absolutely is not true,” stated Shannon. “If you had the opportunity to go to the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where we’re putting the bigger core stage together, you would also see that it is not true because we are putting hardware together as we speak.”

This upper stage engine is a brand new design and has never flown before, and the rocket it is part of has yet to be assembled. Yet NASA is considering flying humans on it during its first test flight, even as it harasses SpaceX and Boeing about using the Falcon 9 and Atlas 5 rockets, both proven repeatedly in operational flights, for their manned ISS missions.

The article also gives an update on the situation at Michoud since it was hit by a tornado on February 8. It appears that the facility is operating again, but not fully.

ULA to trim workforce again

The competition heats up: In another effort to cut costs, ULA is planning to trim its workforce again in 2017.

In 2016 they cut 350 jobs. They haven’t specified a number this time, as they hope to initially eliminate jobs through voluntary buyouts and layoffs. Regardless, this is a good sign, as it indicates that the company remains serious about being competitive in the launch market.

U.S. wins launch scorecard for 2016

Doug Messier today has compiled a list showing the launch totals worldwide for 2016, showing that though the U.S. and China tied for first with the most launches, 22, the U.S. won the race with fewer launch failures. Russia fell to third, almost entirely because its Proton rocket has been grounded since June.

What I find interesting is that, very slowly, the competing American companies are beginning to compile launch numbers that match those of whole nations. ULA completed 12 launches, which beat everyone but the U.S., China, and Russia. SpaceX, despite no launches after its September 1 launchpad explosion, still beat India and Japan, long considered established space powers, and finished only one launch total behind Europe.

Eventually, I believe SpaceX is going to get its technical problems ironed out. When that happens, the competition between them and ULA could have both companies producing numbers that beat out the national programs of Russia and China. In fact, I expect this to happen within three years, but more likely sooner.

Another successful ULA Atlas 5 launch

The competition heats up: ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket successfully launched a commercial communications satellite on Sunday.

In its sixty-seven flights before Sunday’s launch, the Atlas V has achieved sixty-six successes, including a stretch of fifty-seven missions going back to October 2007. The only mission which was not a complete success, June 2007’s launch of the NROL-30 mission, a pair of naval intelligence satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office – reached a lower-than-planned orbit but the satellites were able to correct for this using their own propulsion. ULA describes the launch as successful from its customer’s perspective, while independent analysts consider it a partial failure.

Though the article notes that most Atlas 5 launches have been for the government, the company has recently been aggressively courting the private sector.

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.

New ULA website allows customers to configure their launch

The competition heats up: ULA today announced the creation of a new website, dubbed Rocketbuilder, where customers and the public and configure their own launch rocket.

ULA noted that the tool also provides insight into reliability, schedule assurance and performance, allowing users to make a true value comparison. “The value of a launch is a lot more than its price tag,” said Tory Bruno, ULA president and chief executive officer. “Through our RocketBuilder website, customers are now empowered with pricing information that can be used to make decisions during their spacecraft development process, potentially helping customers keep program costs down. In addition, customers are able to build a rocket based on the needs they input, their spacecraft specifications and mission requirements.”

Users have the flexibility to select a launch date, the satellite’s orbit, rocket configuration and the customized service level needed for the mission. Finally, the site will capture savings in extra revenue or mission life, provide the true total cost of the specific mission requirements, and allow users to begin the contracting process.

This is great news, as it shows that Bruno and ULA are very serious about competing aggressively with SpaceX. For example, Bruno notes that the price of the cheapest Atlas 5 configuration has dropped from $191 million to $109 million in the last few years. And while this price remains significantly more expensive than SpaceX’s $62 million, this new tool should help to drive the costs down more. When ULA learns which configurations sell best, it will then be able to make those configurations cheaper.

The site is also cool. I tried it, and found that it strongly resembles the experience of buying an airplane ticket at sites like Travelocity. You pick various options (payload weight, payload size, orbit, etc) and the site automatically adjusts the rocket’s configuration and the price.

Atlas 5 launches NOAA weather satellite

Successfully completing its second launch in 8 days, ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket put a new NOAA weather satellite in orbit on Saturday.

NOAA is giving this new satellite a big PR push, claiming it will revolutionize weather monitoring and forecasting. While the satellite might be state of the art, it is also was very expensive, costing $1 billion. I strongly suspect that the same thing could have been built far cheaper, and quicker, if left to the private sector.

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.

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