Orbital ATK and SpaceX win Air Force contracts

The competition heats up: The Air Force has awarded Orbital ATK and SpaceX contracts to develop new rocket engines to help end the U.S.’s reliance on Russian rocket engines.

The Orbital contract is initially worth $47 million, with the company committed to spend $31 million of its own money., according to the Defense Department’s daily digest of major contract awards. Eventually the government could pay the company $180 million. SpaceX’s contract meanwhile was for $33.6 million initially for the development of its new Raptor upper stage engine, with a total government payment to be $61 million.

And that’s not all. Later today NASA will announce the winners in its second ISS cargo contract. The competitors are SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada. I am hoping the latter two win, since that would allow the construction of a fourth American spacecraft, Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser, capable of lifting cargo and crew into space.

Air Force asks private companies to develop new rocket engines

The competition heats up: The Air Force has issued a request for proposals for the development of new rocket engines to replace the Russian engine used on the Atlas 5 rocket.

The press release is a little vague in that it seems to be calling for the development of this new engine, but it could also be interpreted as calling for the development of an entire rocket system. The amount of money involved is too small for this, however, so I suspect we are only talking about engine development here.

Meanwhile, they will continue to issue launch contracts to ULA and SpaceX while they wait for this new engine to be developed. Note also that this sure is a good deal for ULA, getting the Air Force to pay for upgrades to its Atlas 5 rocket.

ULA to trim management by 30%

The competition heats up: In order to make itself more efficient and competitive, ULA has decided to cut its management by 30%.

ULA CEO Tory Bruno has said ULA must shrink to remain successful under reduced U.S. military budgets and with Elon Musk’s SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corp.) being certified to compete against ULA for national security mission launches. “To achieve that transformation, we are reducing the number of executive positions by 30 percent and offered a voluntary layoff for those interested on the executive leadership team,” said ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye. “It is important for ULA to move forward early in the process with our leadership selections to ensure a seamless transition and our continued focus on mission success.”

This news should be looked at in the context of a proposed Senate bill that requires the Air Force to significantly cut funding to ULA.

Not only would the bill cut an annual $1 billion payment from the Air Force to ULA, it would put severe restrictions on the number of Russian engines ULA could use in its Atlas 5, which in turn will limit the number of launches the Air Force can buy from the company.

A second experiment on the next X-37B flight revealed

NASA has outlined the materials research it will be conducting on the next X-37B flight, scheduled to launch on May 20.

Known as the Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space, or METIS, the investigation on the X-37B will expose nearly 100 different materials samples to the space environment for more than 200 days, NASA says. METIS is building upon data obtained by several missions of the Materials on International Space Station Experiment (MISSE), which flew more than 4,000 samples in space from 2001 to 2013. For both MISSE and METIS, small samples the size of quarters are used. METIS will fly a variety of materials including polymers, composites and coatings.

Not only does this information, plus earlier information about an Air Force ion engine thruster experiment, probably describe a great deal of what the X-37B is carrying, it also tells us the probable duration of the flight.

I have no doubt there are other classified Air Force experiments on board, but like these, they are likely to be test articles, since the X-37B provides the perfect testbed for exposing new technology to space to see how it fares.

X-37B to fly again!

The May 6 Atlas 5 launch will carry one of the Air Force’s two X-37B mini-shuttles on a new mission in space.

The Air Force won’t yet confirm which of the Boeing-built spaceplanes will be making the voyage. The first craft returned in October from a 675-day mission in space following a 224 day trek in 2010. OTV No. 2 spent 469 days in space in 2011-2012 on its only mission so far. “The program selects the Orbital Test Vehicle for each activity based upon the experiment objectives,” said Capt. Chris Hoyler, an Air Force spokesperson. “Each OTV mission builds upon previous on-orbit demonstrations and expands the test envelope of the vehicle. The test mission furthers the development of the concept of operations for reusable space vehicles.”

There are indications that the Air Force wants to attempt landing the shuttle at Kennedy this time.

Air Force subsidies to ULA to end

The competition heats up: Because it has concluded that they make it impossible to have a fair competition for contracts, the Air Force has decided to phase out the subsidies it has been paying to the United Launch Alliance (ULA).

The specific amounts of these subsidies have been effectively buried by the Air Force in many different contracts, so we the taxpayers really don’t know how much the are.

Nonetheless, this decision, combined with the military report released yesterday that criticized the Air Force’s over-bearing and restrictive certification process with SpaceX indicates that the political pressure is now pushing them hard to open up bidding to multiple companies, which in turn will help lower cost and save the taxpayer money.

Air Force demanded too much in its SpaceX certification process

In the heat of competition: A military review of the Air Force’s certification process of SpaceX has found that the Air Force has demanded far more changes from the company than were justified or proper.

The report, prepared by former Air Force Chief of Staff General Larry Welch, said the Air Force treated the process like a detailed design review, dictating changes in SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and even the company’s organizational structure. That approach resulted in over 400 issues that needed to be resolved, which was “counterproductive” to a national policy aimed at encouraging competition in the sector.

In fact, the process was intended to show that SpaceX met overall requirements to launch military satellites, not carry out the more detailed review required for each launch on a case-by-case basis, he said.

The review also concluded that SpaceX was too resistent to any proposed changes.

SpaceX might have been too resistent, but this report confirms my suspiciion that the Air Force purposely created hoops for SpaceX to jump through because the Air Force really didn’t want to have to deal with SpaceX and wanted to make it too difficult for them to be approved.

Air Force to open bidding on launches

The competition heats up? An unnamed Air Force official has said that they intend to open up competitive bidding on as many as 10 military launches through 2017.

This might be part of the agreement between SpaceX and the Air Force that included SpaceX dropping its lawsuit and the Air Force giving a spy satellite launch that SpaceX wanted to bid on to ULA. In exchange, the Air Force will allow SpaceX to bid on a number of GPS satellite launches.

Then again, this is not an official announcement. Until it actually happens officially, I would not trust the Air Force to do what it should or promised.

Air Force gives more launches to ULA

The heat of competition? The Air Force has added three launches to its $4 billion bulk-buy contract with ULA, including one that SpaceX had hoped to bid on.

The timing of this contract award, worth $383 million, is most intriguing, coming as it does mere days after SpaceX had dropped its lawsuit with the Air Force. It is almost as if the Air Force was waiting for that lawsuit to go away before it gave more contracts to ULA. Note also the launch cost for these three launches: $383 million for 3 launches, or about $127 million per launch. That’s more than twice what SpaceX charges for a Falcon 9 launch.

It sure looks to me like the Air Force does not have the taxpayers’ interests at heart, and instead is working an inside deal to help its buddies at ULA.

SpaceX drops Air Force lawsuit in new deal

The competition heats up: SpaceX has dropped its lawsuit against the Air Force in exchange for the opportunity to bid on more military launch contracts.

“Under the agreement, the Air Force will work collaboratively with SpaceX to complete the certification process in an efficient and expedient manner,” the statement from the two parties said. “The Air Force also has expanded the number of competitive opportunities for launch services under the EELV program while honoring existing contractual obligations.” The statement did not make clear how many competitive launch opportunities would be available or when. The Air Force has committed to seven launch awards by late 2017, but has said that number could grow to at least eight.

Each additional launch contract the Air Force puts out for competition gives SpaceX or ULA another opportunity to win about $100 million or more in business.

This is a big win for SpaceX. It is also not a surprise. As much as some Air Force officials have wanted to maintain the ULA monopoloy, their position has been weak, for both political and economic reasons. SpaceX’s costs are just too much lower, and the company continues to demonstrate its reliability and competence in launch after launch. Thus, it was practically impossible for Air Force officials to justify maintaining the block buy non-competitive contract award to ULA.

Atlas 5 successfully launches GPS satellite

ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket today successfully launched an Air Force GPS satellite.

The article is worth reading because it does a nice job of summarizing the launch history of the Atlas 5, first introduced in 2002. The key quote, however, is this:

All of the rocket’s early flights carried commercial communications satellites, with the next few launches orbiting HellasSat-2, Rainbow 1, AMC-16 and Inmarsat-4F1. In August 2005 the sixth Atlas V embarked on the type’s first mission for the US Government, deploying NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on the first leg of its mission to the Red Planet.

In other words, the first six flights were commercial, with every flight since 2005 for either NASA or the military. What this suggests to me is that the Atlas 5 is not competitive in the commercial market. It is too expensive, and commercial customers can’t afford it. In contrast, the federal government hasn’t been interested in saving the taxpayer money for years, and pays for this overpriced rocket in order to keep its builders employed.

The X-37B goes to Mars

After 675 days in space, the Air Force’s reusable X-37B mini-shuttle successfully returned to Earth today, completing its second flight in space.

There has been a lot of speculation about the secret payloads that the two X-37B’s have carried into space. The Air Force has been very tight-lipped about this, though they have said this:

“The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space, and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth,” Air Force officials wrote in on online X-37B fact sheet. “Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control; thermal protection systems; avionics; high-temperature structures and seals; conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems; and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry and landing,” they added.

The obvious advantage of the X-37B is that it allows the Air Force to test these new technologies in space, then bring them back to Earth for detailed analysis.

However, I think the most important engineering knowledge gained from this flight will not be from the payload, but from the X-37B itself.
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Orbiting X-37B to land on Tuesday

After twenty-two months in orbit, on its second space mission, the Air Force plans to bring the X-37B back to Earth this coming Tuesday.

The exact time and date will depend on weather and technical factors, the Air Force said in a statement released on Friday. The X-37B space plane, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, blasted off for its second mission aboard an unmanned Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 11, 2012. The 29-foot-long (9-meter) robotic spaceship, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, is an experimental vehicle that first flew in April 2010. It returned after eight months. A second vehicle blasted off in March 2011 and stayed in orbit for 15 months.

Air Force to take over two former shuttle hangers in Florida for its X-37B program

In an effort to find tenants for its facilities, the Kennedy Space Center is going to rent two former shuttle processing hangers to Boeing for the Air Force’s X-37B program.

NASA built three Orbiter Processing Facilities, or OPFs, to service its space shuttle fleet between missions. All three are located next to the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building at the Florida spaceport where Apollo Saturn 5 moon rockets and space shuttles were “stacked” for launch. Under an agreement with NASA, Boeing will modify OPF bays 1 and 2 for the X-37B program, completing upgrades by the end of the year.

The company already has an agreement with NASA to use OPF-3 and the shuttle engine shop in the VAB to assemble its CST-100 commercial crew craft being built to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The company says up to six capsules can be processed in the facility at the same time.

The most important take-away from this news is that it strongly suggests the Air Force now intends to expand the X-37B program. They will not only be flying both X37B’s again, they might even planning to increase the fleet’s size from two ships.

Congress demands American rocket engines for military launches

In a letter written by a bi-partisan group of California legislators, Congress is pressuring the Air Force to replace the Russian engines on its Atlas rocket, and do to it competitively.

“While it is important that we invest in new technology, the problem of Russian reliance calls for an immediate solution,” states the Sept. 22 letter, which was signed by 32 of California’s 53 members of the U.S. House of Representatives. … In the letter, the House members said they are “troubled by the Department’s willingness to continue sourcing this engine from the Russian government, apparently in the hope that the situation with Russia does not deteriorate further, and that Russia chooses to continue supporting U.S. military launches — while it ignores American sources of engine technology. “We strongly encourage you to recognize that the United States — and specifically, California — today produces technology that exceeds any capability offered by Russian systems,” the letter said. “It is time for the Department to look to these existing U.S. engine manufacturers and launch vehicle providers.”

This letter suggests to me that SpaceX has won its battle with the Air Force and is going to get some launch contracts. It also suggests that ULA and Blue Origin will likely be able to get the funding from Congress to finance the design and construction of the replacement engine they have jointly proposed.

Air Force to decide SpaceX certification on December 1

The competition heats up: The Air Force has set December 1 for its deadline for certifying SpaceX as qualified to launch military satellites.

“I root for SpaceX to come into the competition,” Gen. John Hyten, head of Air Force Space Command, said during a speech Tuesday at the Air Force Association’s annual conference. But he warned that the company may not be ready in time. “The most important thing for this nation is assured access to space that works all the time,” he said. “That’s why the certification for SpaceX, hopefully by Dec. 1, is a big event. But if they’re not ready on Dec. 1, we have to stand up and say that, and that’s going to be difficult because I want competition.”

It sounds like the Air Force is setting this date as when it will decide one way or the other, regardless of anything SpaceX has done. I also suspect that, because of politics, this decision will hinge on what NASA decides today concerning its commercial crew contract.

The X-37B just keeps going.

The Energizer bunny of space: The X-37B has now completed more than 600 days in orbit, with no indication when it will return to Earth.

The Air Force is believed to have only two X-37B space planes. These space planes have flown at otal of three missions, which are known as OTV-1, OTV-2 and OTV-3. (“OTV” is short for Orbital Test Vehicle.) The first mission blasted off in April 2010, and the craft circled Earth for 225 days. The second X-37B vehicle launched in March 2011, performing the OTV-2 mission. This spaceflight lasted 469 days, ultimately landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in June 2012. That was the same landing site OTV-1 used after completing its mission.

The current OTV-3 mission is reusing the first X-37B space plane from the OTV-1 flight, showcasing the reusability aspect of the program.

Air Force hypersonic test ends in failure

The second test flight in an Air Force program to research hypersonic flight failed when its booster rocket was intentionally destroyed for safety reasons immediately after launch.

It was the second test of the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, a program managed by U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command to develop a conventional deep-strike munition that travels through the atmosphere on a nonballistic trajectory. In its first flight, the vehicle lifted off from Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii and flew a nonballistic, glide trajectory at hypersonic speeds toward the Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll — some 4,000 kilometers away — where it arrived about 30 minutes later.

Air Force requests info for new engine

Corporate welfare: The Air Force on Thursday issued a request for information from industry for the replacement of the Russian-made engines used by ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket.

Companies are being asked to respond by Sept. 19 to 35 questions. Among them: “What solution would you recommend to replace the capability currently provided by the RD-180 engine?” Air Force officials have told Congress they only have a broad idea of how to replace the RD-180. Estimates of the investment in money and time necessary to field an American-built alternative vary widely. Congress, meanwhile, is preparing bills that would fund a full-scale engine development program starting next year; the White House is advocating a more deliberate approach that begins with an examination of applicable technologies.

In the request for information, the Air Force says it is open to a variety of options including an RD-180 facsimile, a new design, and alternative configurations featuring multiple engines, and even a brand new rocket. The Air Force is also trying to decide on the best acquisition approach. Options include a traditional acquisition or a shared investment as part of a public-private partnership. [emphasis mine]

The Atlas 5 is built by Lockheed Martin. This is really their problem, not the Air Force or ULA. In addition, the Air Force has other options, both from Boeing’s Delta rocket family as well as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. For the government to fund this new engine is nothing more than corporate welfare, at a time when the federal government is swimming in debt and is essentially bankrupt.

Competition with SpaceX forced ULA CEO out

A news story today in Defense News speculates that the competitive pressure from SpaceX is what forced ULA’s CEO to step down.

Changes at the CEO level are usually accompanied by a change in how business is done, said Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners. “Generally, when you see abrupt leadership changes, there’s an abrupt change of strategic or tactical course needed,” Callan said. “You don’t make those changes unless you see something that needs fast corrective action.”

Caceres said he expects to see layoffs and a streamlining of ULA to find all possible cost savings. “My sense is you’re going to see at ULA a restructuring of some sort, because ultimately they’re going to have to find a way to be a lot more competitive on price,” he said.

This restructuring is entirely the result of the new competition from SpaceX, as repeatedly noted by the article.

Congress applies pressure to ULA and the Air Force

Two congressional committees are holding up approval of a budget revision for the Air Force’s launch program because of concerns about cost overruns and the program’s dependency on a Russian rocket engine.

Such requests must be approved by each of the four congressional defense committees, and so far, the EELV proposal has won the support of only two. The Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee and the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee have green-lighted the plan, while the House and Senate Armed Services committees have deferred approval, according to budget documents dated July 25 and July 31, obtained by Defense News.

[The Senate Armed Services Committee] (SASC) asked the Air Force to draw up a plan, by Sept. 30, “that leads to the production of a liquid rocket engine by 2019,” according to one of the documents, sent to Pentagon Comptroller Michael McCord by SASC Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich.

Meanwhile, others legislators are questioning the program’s cost overruns. Though only hinted at in the article, this hold up is also related to SpaceX’s demand that the bidding for Air Force launches be opened up to competition.

SpaceX scores first in its suit against the Air Force

A federal judge has denied the motion of the Air Force and ULA to dismiss SpaceX’s suit against their block buy launch contract that excludes competition from any other company.

The judge also required the parties go to mediation to settle their differences. Both rulings give added weight to SpaceX’s main complaint, that the company as well as others should have the right to compete for this Air Force launch work.

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