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.

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.

X-37B sets new orbital 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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..

SpaceX gets its first official Air Force contract

The competition heats up: On April 27 the Air Force made it official and announced that SpaceX has won its first military contract, breaking ULA’s launch monopoly.

This contract award really isn’t a surprise, as SpaceX had been certified by the Air Force as a qualified bidder, and ULA had declined to bid on this particular contract, leaving SpaceX as the Air Force’s only possible contractor.

Update: The Air Force has admitted that SpaceX’s $83 million price is 40% less than what ULA has typically charged for a comparable launch, confirming what Elon Musk and SpaceX (and many others, including myself back in 2005) have claimed all along, that the Air Force’s EELV bulk buy (giving ULA an Air Force launch monopoly) was a bad idea, discouraging innovation, forcing costs up, and guaranteed to force the government to spend a lot of unnecessary extra money.

I must add that it is definitely worthwhile reading my UPI column from 2005 again, now, more than a decade later. I predicted quite accurately what has subsequently happened following the merger of Lockheed Martin and Boeing to form ULA.

Congress micro-manages rocket engineering again

In an effort to funnel money to Aerojet Rocketdyne at the cost of every other rocket company in the nation, the House Armed Services Committee has written a bill that tells the Air Force exactly how it will build its future rockets.

“The Committee shares the concern of many members that reliance on Russian-designed rocket engines is no longer acceptable,” the committee said April 25. “The Chairman’s Proposal, as recommended by Chairman Rogers of the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, denies the Air Force’s request to pursue the development, at taxpayer expense, of new commercial launch systems. It instead focuses on the development of a new American engine to replace the Russian RD-180 by 2019 to protect assured access to space and to end reliance on Russian engines. The Mark also holds the Air Force accountable for its awards of rocket propulsion contracts that violated the FY15 and FY16 NDAAs.”

…“The funds would not be authorized to be obligated or expended to develop or procure a launch vehicle, an upper stage, a strap-on motor, or related infrastructure,” says a draft of the 2017 defense authorization bill.

As presently written, the bill would leave the Air Force only one option: use engines built by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

If anything demonstrates the corruption or foolishness of our elected officials, it is this proposal. Not only are they telling the Air Force how to design rockets, they are limiting the options so much that they are guaranteeing that it will either cost us more than we can afford, or it won’t be doable at all. As I say, either they are corrupt (working to benefit Aerojet Rocketdyne in exchange for money), or they are foolish, (preventing the Air Force from exploring as many inexpensive future options as possible).

Orbital ATK negotiating lease for part of VAB

The competition heats up: Orbital ATK has begun negotiations with NASA for possibly leasing part of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for use in connection with a military rocket.

Virginia-based Orbital ATK is one of two rocket companies that launch resupply missions to the International Space Station, but this deal would not involve those missions or that rocket, the company’s Antares. The Antares launches from NASA’s space port at Wallops Island, Va., carrying the Orbital ATK Cygnus capsule.

The new rocket that Orbital ATK hopes to develop and one day assemble in the VAB would be a medium- to heavy-lift rocket.The planned rocket currently referred to by the name the Air Force set for it, the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle-class rocket.

It sounds like Orbital ATK is putting together a bid to compete for the Air Force rocket contract, and needs to get a handle on the costs for using the VAB at Kennedy in order to make the offer credible.

DOD opens ULA investigation

The deputy inspector general of the Defense Department has notified the Air Force that he is beginning an investigation into ULA and the DOD over their relationship and contract.

He also made it clear that the investigation was sparked by last week’s comments by a ULA executive who subsequently resigned.

This is all a game. The Air Force and ULA have been colluding for years to squeeze out any competition. There is no one in Washington who needs an investigation to find this out. The inspector general will issue a report, the Air Force will admit its error and promise to do better, and they will then try to have things continue as they have.

The one difference, however, will be that SpaceX will be there, providing real competition. Thus, what matters isn’t the investigation by the inspector general. What matters is the existence of a competing company willing to put cost pressure on ULA and the Air Force.

ULA head rejects his engineer’s remarks about Aerojet Rocketdyne

The heat of competition: The head of ULA has disavowed his engineers’ remarks that plugged Blue Origin’s engine for the Atlas 5 while dissing Aeroject Rocketdyne’s.

The engineer was giving a talk at the University of Colorado this week where he made it pretty clear that ULA favors Blue Origin over Aerojet Rocketdyne, but had to make believe they were treating both companies equally in the competition to replace the Atlas 5’s Russian engines in order to keep the Air Force happy. Bruno is probably now doing some damage control, as the government still wants to justify the Aerojet Rocketdyne contract (whose only real purpose was as a government pork barrel jobs program). Considering all the money the Air Force and congressmen give to ULA, he has to keep them both happy. And telling the world that their Aerojet contract is a waste of government money is not a very good way to do this.

Nonetheless, he also admitted that Blue Origin is way ahead in development, and is thus most likely to win the competition anyway.

ULA’s parent companies express caution about Vulcan

The competition heats up? The executives in charge of ULA’s parent companies, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, today expressed mixed support for the development of the Vulcan rocket, designed to replace the Atlas 5.

For more than a year, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been investing in the rocket on a quarter-by-quarter basis and the ULA board leaders said this week that the practice would continue. “We have to be prudent, disciplined stewards of any kind of investment,” Ambrose [Lockheed Martin] said. “Vulcan would be like any other investment decision.”

In September 2015, ULA’s leaders said a ban by Congress on the Russian RD-180 rocket engine, which powers ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket, was a leading driver behind the measured investment in Vulcan. But that issue was temporarily resolved in December, when Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) used a must-pass spending bill to eliminate the engine restrictions that had become law just weeks earlier.

Now, Ambrose pointed to “uncertainties” with launch policy, while Cooning [Boeing] said disagreements between lawmakers and the Air Force on the best approach for ending RD-180 dependence have given them pause, further justifying a “cautious and conservative approach.”

In other words, now that the law requiring a quick replacement of the Russian engine has been repealed, these executives feel less compunction to build Vulcan, something I had sensed in December and had commented on. As a result, they are telling us, in their tangled corporate ways, that they are not going to invest much of their own money on Vulcan, unless the government forks up a lot of cash for them to proceed.

Free government money for Aerojet Rocketdyne!

Crony capitalism: Even though ULA prefers Blue Origin’s engine for its Atlas 5, the Air Force continues to fund Aerojet Rocketdyne’s new engine.

The U.S. Air Force announced Feb. 29 it was investing $115 million this year, and with options, as much as $536 million over the next five years, in [Aerojet Rocketdyne’s] AR1, a new liquid oxygen- and kerosene-fueled main-stage engine. The contract award is part of an Air Force initiative to end reliance on the Russian-built RD-180 engine that powers ULA’s Atlas 5 workhorse rocket.

Aerojet says it has two potential other customers to use the engine, but will not name them. In reviewing the field, the only customer I can think of that might be interested would be Orbital ATK (for its Antares rocket), and even there I have doubts. Thus, it appears to me that these funds are really being distributed to prop up a company that is failing, not to build anything useful the government needs.

McCain and Air Force question ULA military arrangement

On Wednesday, the military arrangement between the Air Force and ULA came under strong attack.

First, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) introduced a bill in Congress that would re-instate the ban on ULA’s use of Russian engines in the Atlas 5 rocket. The ban had been lifted when Senators Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) and Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) snuck language doing so into the giant omnibus budget bill in December.

Second, at a hearing in the Senate on Wednesday, Air Force, under attack by Senator McCain for its sweetheart deal which gives ULA $800 million annually whether or not it launches anything regardless, admitted that it is thinking of terminating that deal early.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a Wednesday hearing the service is considering early termination of the current EELV Launch Capability (ELC) contract, a unique arrangement set up in 2006 to fund the cost of maintaining ULA launch infrastructure. At the time, the arrangement made sense because ULA was the Pentagon’s sole source for military space launch. “I was very surprised and disappointed when ULA did not bid on a recent GPS competitive launch opportunity,” James said. “And given the fact that there are taxpayer dollars involved with this ELC arrangement I just described to you, I’ve asked my legal team to review what could be done about this.”

The McCain bill is not likely to pass. However, the pressure he is putting on the Air Force, combined with the renewed and cheaper competition being offered by SpaceX, could very well lead to the ending of ULA’s EELV deal.

I expect to see a similar scenario play out in connection with Orion/SLS sometime in the next two years. When SpaceX and others begin to fly manned capsules and big rockets for relatively little money, our elected officials are eventually going to notice how much more expensive that bloated government program is, even as it doesn’t accomplish much. Some of them will suddenly realize the political advantage in attacking SLS, and begin to do so.

Air Force certifies Falcon 9 upgrade for military launches

The competition heats up: The Air Force has approved use of SpaceX’s upgraded Falcon 9 rocket for use in military launches.

What this means is that SpaceX is increasingly considered an acceptable bidder for future military launch contracts. Moreover, it means that SpaceX will be able to use the Falcon 9 first stage that they are landing vertically, giving them more recoverable first stages for future flights.

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