Tag Archives: Atlas 5

Air Force limits future launch bidding to SpaceX and ULA

The Air Force today announced that it decided, after more than a year of discussions and negotiations, to limit bidding on all launch contracts for the next five years to only SpaceX and ULA, thus restricting competitive bidding on those contracts.

The awards represent the second phase of the military’s National Security Space Launch program, which is organized by the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, California. Four companies — Elon Musk’s SpaceX, ULA, Northrop Grumman and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin — bid for the contracts, with the military set to spend about $1 billion per year on launches.

The NSSL awards represent nearly three dozen launches, scheduled between 2022 and 2026. ULA won 60% of the launches, and SpaceX won the remaining 40%.

The award blocks Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin from bidding on these contracts. Expect a lawsuit from these two companies demanding that they have the right to bid, just as SpaceX did several years ago when the Air Force tried to maintain ULA’s monopoly on bidding.

On a very common sense level, this approach by the Air Force (its space operations soon to be taken over by the Space Force) makes little sense. Why restrict bidding? Both Blue Origin or Northrop Grumman expect to have their new rockets operating commercially in the next two years. They should have the right to bid on military launches. The competition will strengthen the launch market, reduce the costs to the military, and give it more redundancy and flexibility.

Based on my research, the only real reason I have ever been able to find for the Air Force’s desire to do this is their inability to deal with their paperwork should more than two bids be received.

SpaceX and ULA get launch contracts from SES

Capitalism in space: The satellite communications company SES yesterday announced the award of new launch contracts to both SpaceX and ULA.

It appears that the contract was for one launch from each company, each putting up two satellites. Previously SES’s satellites were generally too large for either the Atlas 5 or the Falcon 9 to launch two at one time. This suggests that the satellite company is slimming down the design of its satellites.

ULA’s Atlas-5 successfully launches Perseverance to Mars

ULA’s Atlas-5 rocket this morning successfully launched NASA’s Perseverance rover on its journey to Mars.

The rover is scheduled to arrive on Mars on February 18, 2021, landing in Jezero Crater.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

18 China
11 SpaceX
8 Russia
4 ULA
3 Japan

The U.S. now leads China 19-18 in the national rankings.

Live stream of Perseverance launch tomorrow

I have embedded below the fold NASA’s live stream channel for tomorrow’s 7:50 am (Eastern) launch of the Perseverance rover to Mars on a ULA Atlas-5 rocket.

At present the channel is carrying NASA’s programming leading up to the launch. The actual live stream for the launch begins at 7 am (Eastern).

The weather looks good, and there appear to be no issues, as of 11 pm (Eastern).

» Read more

Perseverance launch delayed to July 30, 2020

Not good: Because of an issue with the Atlas 5 rocket, NASA and ULA have decided to delay again the launch of the next Mars rover Perseverance from July 22nd to July 30th.

“Due to launch vehicle processing delays in preparation for spacecraft mate operations, NASA and United Launch Alliance have moved the first launch attempt of the Mars 2020 mission to no earlier than July 30,” NASA said. “A liquid oxygen sensor line presented off-nominal data during the Wet Dress Rehearsal, and additional time is needed for the team to inspect and evaluate.”

ULA performed the Wet Dress Rehearsal on June 22. The exercise involved rolling the Perseverance rover’s Atlas 5 launcher out of its vertical integration hangar to Cape Canaveral’s Complex 41 launch pad, then loading the rocket with kerosene, liquid hydrogen, and liquid oxygen propellants. The launch team practiced countdown procedures, testing the Atlas 5’s systems before halting the pre-launch sequence seconds before ignition of the rocket’s RD-180 main engine.

Their official launch window extends to August 11th, though they could still launch as late as August 15th and get to their landing site in Jezero Crater on Mars.

This is the third delay. The first involved a faulty crane and the second contamination issues in the rover’s clean room. Now an issue with an oxygen sensor. Let us hope their are no more, and that the weather then cooperates. It they don’t launch by August 15th the launch will then be postponed for two whole years.

Perseverance launch delayed two days

NASA and ULA have agreed to delay the launch of the new Mars rover Perseverance two days, from July 20th to July 22nd, because of “a contamination concern.”

NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance was scheduled to launch toward the Red Planet on July 20 from a pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. But a problem cropped up as engineers worked to encapsulate the rover in the nosecone of its Atlas V rocket, which was built by United Launch Alliance.

“NASA and United Launch Alliance are now targeting Wednesday, July 22, for launch of the Mars 2020 mission due to a processing delay encountered during encapsulation activities of the spacecraft,” NASA officials said in an update. “Additional time was needed to resolve a contamination concern in the ground support lines in NASA’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF).”

This contamination likely relates to their effort to keep the rover free from Earth biology.

The official launch window closes on August 11th, though they can still launch as late as August 15th and get to their targeted landing site in Jezero Crater on Mars.

Atlas 5 launches X-37B spacecraft

Capitalism in space: ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket this morning successfully launched one of the military’s two X-37B reusable mini-shuttles into orbit.

I have embedded the video of the launch below the fold, with the launch occurring at 23:50.

As has been standard procedure during all previous X-37B missions, only a few details about the payloads have been released, though the military has said it wishes to be a bit more open this time.

“This sixth mission is a big step for the X-37B program,” said Randy Walden, director and program executive officer for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. “This will be the first X-37B mission to use a service module to host experiments. The incorporation of a service module on this mission enables us to continue to expand the capabilities of the spacecraft and host more experiments than any of the previous missions.” The service module is attached to the aft end of the X-37B spaceplane, providing additional capacity for experiments and payloads. The X-37B itself, measuring more than 29 feet (8.9 meters) long, also has a cargo bay inside its fuselage.

Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett said Wednesday that the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office is partnering with the U.S. Space force and the Air Force Research Laboratory on the next X-37B mission. … “This important mission will host more experiments than any prior X-37B flight, including two NASA experiments,” Barrett said Wednesday. “One is a sample plate evaluating the reaction of select significant materials to the conditions in space. The second studies the effect of ambient space radiation on seeds.”

The X-37B also carries a space-based solar power experiment. “A third experiment designed by the Naval Research Laboratory transforms solar power into radio frequency microwave energy, then studies transmitting that energy to Earth,” Barrett said.

Once in orbit, the X-37B will also release a small satellite named FalconSat 8. Developed by Air Force Academy cadets in partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory, the small satellite carries five experimental payloads. It will be operated by by the Air Force Academy’s Cadet Space Operations Squadron

They have not said how long this X-37B will remain in orbit.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

8 China
6 SpaceX
6 Russia
6 Europe (Arianespace)
3 ULA

The U.S. now leads China 11 to 8 in the national rankings, and will likely increase that lead very early tomorrow in the next day or so when SpaceX completes its next scheduled Falcon 9 Starlink launch. (Because of weather they have pushed back one day.
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ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket successfully launches military satellite

Capitalism in space: United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket today successfully placed into orbit the first military satellite officially under the U.S. Space Force’s command.

The satellite is the fifth of a constellation designed to provide communications for all military operations.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

6 China
5 SpaceX
4 Russia
2 Europe (Arianespace)
2 ULA

The U.S. now leads China 9 to 6 in the national rankings.

First launch of ULA’s Vulcan on schedule for 2021

Capitalism in space: According to ULA’s CEO, Tory Bruno, the company is on track to transition as planned from its Atlas 5 and Delta rockets to its new Vulcan rocket.

Just five Delta IV Heavy launches remain on the manifest, all NRO launches procured under the block buy Phase 1 methodology. Bruno expects the final Delta launch to occur in 2023 or 2024.

The workhorse of the ULA fleet, Atlas V, is expected to retire on a similar timeframe. Bruno says the launcher could be “done as early as 2022, or as late as 2024.” Atlas V will have to continue operations until its replacement, Vulcan, can be human-rated to launch the Boeing Starliner spacecraft.

…The first flight of Vulcan Centaur is on track for early 2021, with the first flight vehicle under construction, and more vehicles in flow, in ULA’s factory in Decatur, Alabama. Vulcan’s debut launch will carry the Astrobotic Peregrine lander to the moon for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. A second launch is currently planned for later that year, which will satisfy the Air Force certification requirement for Vulcan to launch military missions.

Bruno’s report is also good news for Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, since both will use Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine in their first stage. If ULA is on schedule, than Blue Origin also likely to be on schedule, meaning that come 2021 or so the U.S. will have at least three companies (including SpaceX) capable of putting large payloads into orbit. Moreover, Northrop Grumman is developing its OmegA rocket, which will compete for the same business.

The article also talks about the military’s launch procurement program, which supposedly will pick two of these launch companies to provide all military launches through the 2020s. That program however is certain to fail, as it will blacklist all other viable companies from bidding on military launches. I expect those companies will successfully sue and force the Space Force to accept bids from more than two companies.

And that is as it should be. Why the military wishes to limit bidding makes no sense, and is probably illegal anyway. As long as a company has a qualified rocket, its bids should be welcome.

ULA’s Atlas 5 launches Solar Orbiter

Capitalism in space: ULA tonight successfully launched a new solar science spacecraft Solar Orbiter.

For more information about Solar Orbiter, which will take the first high resolution images of the Sun’s poles, see the link above or video I’ve embedded below the fold.

Earlier today Northrop Grumman aborted the launch of its Cygnus cargo freighter to ISS only three minutes before launch because of an issue with a ground support sensor. Right now they are are targeting a new launch date of February 13, 2020.

The status in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
2 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab
1 Russia
1 Japan
1 ULA

In the national ranking, the U.S. now leads China 4-3. If Northrop Grumman had launched, that lead would have been 5-3, and the U.S. total would have been comprised of four different and completely independent competing launch companies, all capable of topping the efforts of entire nations. If that doesn’t illustrate the power of freedom, capitalism, competition, and private ownership, I don’t know what does. Moreover, this is only the start. The U.S. right now has numerous other new launch companies rushing to join the competition.

Even more startling, the way we do things is freely available to every other nation in the world. All they have to do is to embrace freedom and the reduction of control and power by their governments. Sadly, very few in these times are willing to do this. In fact, even the U.S. resisted this concept for the entire last half of the 20th century. Only in the past decade have we returned to our roots, and that decision is now beginning to bear abundant fruit.
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Starliner lands safely after failed orbital insertion

Capitalism in space:Boeing’s Starliner capsule successfully landed today in New Mexico, returning to Earth prematurely because of its failure to reach its proper orbit after launch two days ago.

The article quotes extensively from both NASA and Boeing officials touting the many successful achievements of this flight, while trying to minimize the failure that prevented the capsule from docking with ISS properly. And that failure?

The mission elapsed timer issue that cut short Starliner’s planned eight-day mission started before the spacecraft lifted off Friday from Cape Canaveral aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, according to Chilton. “Our spacecraft needs to reach down into the Atlas 5 and figure out what time it is, where the Atlas 5 is in its mission profile, and then we set the clock based on that,” Chilton said in a press conference Saturday. “Somehow we reached in there and grabbed the wrong (number). This doesn’t look like an Atlas problem. This looks like we reached in and grabbed the wrong coefficient.”

“As a result of starting the clock at the wrong time, the spacecraft upon reaching space, she thought she was later in the mission, and, being autonomous, started to behave that way,” Chilton said. “And so it wasn’t in the orbit we expected without the burn and it wasn’t in the attitude expected and was, in fact, adjusting that attitude.”

I read this and find myself appalled. While I agree that overall the mission proved the capsule capable of launching humans to ISS (which is why NASA is considering making the next Starliner mission manned despite this failure), this failure suggests a worrisome lack of quality control at Boeing. I can’t even imagine how the Starliner software could be mis-configured to “grab the wrong number.” This explanation makes no sense, and suggests they are spinning the failure to avoid telling us what they really did wrong.

Either way, I suspect that NASA will approve a manned launch for Starliner’s next orbital flight, but will do so only after dwelling on the problem for at least six months.

Starliner launch fails, spacecraft to return to Earth

After being successfully placed in a preliminary orbit by ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket early this morning, Boeing’s Starliner capsule failed to reach its required orbit for docking with ISS when its own rocket engines did not fire properly at the right time.

The orbit it is in is stable, and the spacecraft is undamaged. Engineers now plan to bring it back to Earth on Sunday, landing at White Sands, New Mexico.

It appears some software issue had the capsule fire its own rockets either at the wrong time or for too short a time. The spacecraft was then in the wrong orbit, and needed to use too much fuel to correct this issue, making it impossible to dock with ISS.

More information here:

However, for reasons Boeing engineers do not yet understand, Starliner’s Mission Event Timer clock malfunctioned, causing the vehicle to think it was at a different point in the mission and at a different time in its mission that it actually was.

…This resulted in Starliner’s Reaction Control System thinking the Orbit Insertion Burn was underway and executing a series of burns to keep the vehicle oriented in the insertion burn attitude; however, the Orbit Insertion Burn was not actually occurring.

When mission controllers realized the issue, they sent manual commands to Starliner to perform an Orbit Insertion Burn in a backup window that came roughly eight minutes after the planned maneuver. However, a known and brief gap in NASA satellite communications caused a further delay.

By the time Starliner was finally able to burn its engines and get into a stable orbit, it had burned 25% more propellant than anticipated.

Boeing is certainly not having a good year. First it has had to shut down production on its new 737-Max airplane due to several crashes caused by software issues. Next its SLS rocket for NASA has had endless cost overruns and delays. Now Starliner fails during its first launch.

For ULA, however, the Atlas 5 rocket performed exactly as planned, so this launch gets listed as a success. They have now completed 5 launches this year.

Russia ships three more engines to U.S. for ULA’s rockets

Russia announced yesterday that it has delivered three more RD-180 engines to ULA for use in its Atlas 5 rocket.

The article notes that this contract, as well as the contract with Northrop Grumman to make RD-181 engines for the Antares rocket, both end in December 2019. While ULA has said it plans to replace the Russia engine with Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine (still under development), it is not clear what Northrop Grumman will do.

In both cases, Russia has delivered enough engines to cover launches for the next few years. This will give Blue Origin time to complete development of the BE-4. As for Antares, the lack of its Russian engine, combined with its inability to obtain any customers other than NASA, could spell the end of that rocket once Northrop Grumman has used up its engine stockpile.

ULA’s Atlas 5 launches military communications satellite

Early this morning ULA used its Atlas 5 rocket to successfully launch an Air Force military communications satellite.

This was the third ULA launch this year, which means they remain off the leader board below. This number of launches is also below the pace set the last two years, where they completed eight launches per year.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

12 Russia
11 China
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 India

The U.S. now leads in the national rankings 17 to 12.

ULA delays Delta 4 and Atlas 5 launches for same reason

Because of a concern about the same component used on both its Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, ULA has now delayed the upcoming launches of both rockets.

Concerns over an unspecified part flying on the upper stages of United Launch Alliance’s rockets have delayed the launch of a GPS satellite on a Delta 4 booster from July 25 to no earlier than Aug. 22.

The same issue has also delayed an Atlas 5 launch.

The delays are related to engineers’ concerns over a common component that flies on the upper stages of the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, a ULA spokesperson said Wednesday.

Both rockets use the same Aeroject Rocketdyne engine in their upper stages, but an official from that companY said that its engine is not the issue. The upper stages also use the same avionics systems.

Posted from the rim of the Grand Canyon.

ULA postpones next Atlas 5 launch due to battery failure

An Atlas 5 launch of a military communications satellite that had been scheduled for this week has been postponed by ULA until July because of a battery failure on the rocket.

While ULA certainly does not have the same kind of quality control problems as the Russians, for them to discover a failure like this so close to launch is somewhat disturbing.

Then again, they discovered it before launch, which is the important thing.

Air Force awards ULA and SpaceX three launch contracts each

Capitalism in space: The Air Force this week released more details about the new launch contracts for both ULA and SpaceX worth just under three quarters of a billion dollars.

The contracts announced in February by the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center were split between ULA and SpaceX, rivals in the U.S. launch industry. ULA won deals for up to three launches worth $441.76 million, and the Air Force awarded SpaceX contracts worth $297 million, also for three missions.

I had reported this back in February when it was first announced, but it was not then revealed that one of the SpaceX launches would be with the Falcon Heavy, the second such Air Force launch planned. That the Air Force awarded this contract prior to its first launch, now scheduled for no earlier than June 2019, is somewhat surprising. I would have expected them to wait to first see if that launch, only the second Falcon Heavy launch, was successful.

The article also notes a minor change by the Air Force in its launch program.

The Air Force has also given a new name to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, a multibillion initiative begun in the 1990s to fund and oversee the development and operations of the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets now owned by ULA.

The Space and Missile Systems Center announced March 1 that the EELV program’s new name is the National Security Space Launch program, in response to language in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.

They really needed to eliminate “Expendable” from the name, since the first stage of SpaceX’s rockets are not expendable, and it is expected that future rockets will be reusable as well. Moreover, EELV was created in the 1990s to create a launch monopoly for Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which then merged to create ULA. That monopoly no longer exists, and the military is now aiming to widen the competition, opening it up to more companies.

ULA gets launch contract for Lucy asteroid mission

Capitalism in space: NASA has awarded ULA a $145 million contract to launch the Lucy asteroid mission on its Atlas 5 rocket.

The price is high for such a launch in today’s market, and is even higher than the cost of some recent military launches, which routinely tack on extra requirements that cause the price to rise. I wonder why. Is it because NASA doesn’t care how much it spends? Or is there a political component here, providing a contract to a company that is having trouble winning contracts in the private sector because their price is too high?

It could be that the mission requires things from the launch that add to the cost. The press release mentions that it “includes the launch service and other mission related costs” but does not specify what they are.

Atlas 5 upper stage for first unmanned Starliner launch arrives in Florida

Capitalism in space: The Centaur upper stage to the ULA Atlas 5 rocket that will launch Boeing’s Starliner capsule on its first unmanned test flight has arrived in Florida.

According to present schedules, that flight is set for no earlier than March. This delivery makes that schedule more likely.

Atlas 5 launches Air Force military satellite

ULA successfully launched an Air Force military satellite early today using its Atlas 5 rocket.

You can watch the launch at the link.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

28 China
17 SpaceX
8 Russia
8 ULA
6 Europe (Arianespace)

China leads the U.S. in the national rankings 28 to 26. Note that Russia has now been tied by ULA in the number of successful launches this year, and has a chance of topping Russia before by year’s end, a possibility that would have been impossible only a few years ago. The Russian launch count has crashed in the past four years. Nor is Russia alone in this. ULA’s numbers have also slumped slightly. Prior to last year, ULA routinely had had a dozen launch per year. It only had 8 launches last year, and it does not look like it will a dozen again in 2018.

This slump is not because of an overall slump in launches. It is because SpaceX has grabbed the commercial market with its less expensive rockets.

Russian lawmaker threatens to block sale of Russian rocket engines to ULA

In response to new U.S. sanctions, a Russian lawmaker has now threatened to block the sale of the Russian RD-180 rocket engine that ULA uses in its Atlas 5 rocket.

Russian lawmaker Sergei Ryabukhin, who heads the budget committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament, responded to the new sanctions by vowing: “The United States needs to finally understand that it’s useless to fight with Russia, including with the help of sanctions.”

According to the Russian news agency RIA, Ryabukhin found a place to hit Washington where it’s soft: the rocket engine. Losing access to the RD-180 would make American access to space—something Donald Trump desires enough to create a separate military service branch devoted to it—much more complicated. The engine helps get everything from satellites to astronauts into orbit.

More details here.

If Russia does this they will be shooting themselves in the foot. ULA is their only customer for the RD-180 engine. Without those sales, they would cut themselves off from one of the few remaining international space contracts they still have, further bankrupting their dying space industry. Furthermore, the U.S. has many other options even if the Atlas 5 can no longer fly. ULA might suffer until it can get a replacement engine, but in the meantime the Falcon Heavy is now available to replace it, at less cost.

NASA announces crews for first commercial manned launches

NASA has announced the crews for the first commercial manned launches.

Boeing’s crew flight test aboard its Starliner spacecraft, which is targeted to launch in mid-2019, will have Eric Boe, Chris Ferguson and Nicole Mann on board. Boeing’s first post-certification mission will have Josh Cassada and Suni Williams aboard.

SpaceX’s demo mission 2 aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which is targeted to launch in April 2019, will have Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley aboard. The first post-certification mission will be crewed by Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins.

These crews cover the first two manned missions for each spacecraft.

Hat tip Kirk Hilliard.

More information here.

New launch dates for commercial crew posted by NASA

NASA has now released an updated schedule for the first test flights of Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon manned capsules:

In chronological order:

SpaceX Demo-1 (uncrewed): November 2018
Boeing Orbital Flight Test (uncrewed): late 2018 / early 2019
SpaceX Demo-2 (crewed): April 2019
Boeing Crew Flight Test (crewed): mid-2019

Note once again that this schedule bears no resemblance to the pessimistic schedule put forth by the GAO. That schedule indicated that significant delays could be expected because of NASA’s heavy paperwork requirements.

I fully expect that political needs will force that paperwork to be done much faster than the GAO, or NASA, expects, or even wants. And the increased speed will have little to do with reducing safety.

NASA safety panel reviews commercial crew, tries to justify its paperwork demands

Link here. The article describes the results from the quarterly meeting of NASA’s safety panel, which occurred last week, including its concerns about the recent test problems during a launch abort test of Boeing’s Starliner capsule. It also describes the panel’s general satisfaction at the status of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.

The article however ends with a long screed by one panel member, explaining that the heavy paperwork requirements they are imposing on the two companies is not really paperwork.

“It needs to be noted by everyone, and we’re especially interested in making sure that all of the external stakeholders realize this, that while the concluding process of certification has sometimes been described as a paper process, that is really just a shorthand clarification and in reality it could not be further from the truth,” noted Dr. McErlean.

In reality, the process is as follows. “In a certified design, the design agent – the contractor or partner in this case – performs the design and in the certification plan, the design agent and the certification agency (NASA) agree on the submittal of certification evidence.

“This could be measurements, it can be test data, it can be analysis, but it almost always involves the submittal of detailed technical data, not simply paper descriptions or forms. Sometimes it involves witness testing and sometimes it involves physical inspection. But it almost always wraps around important technical submittals.

Can I translate? The safety panel requires a lot of testing so that a lot of paperwork can be filled out. And while much of this testing is likely to help make the capsule’s safer, most of it seems to me to be make-work, and designed to justify the existence of NASA and its safety panel.

NASA rubberstamps Russian engines in Atlas 5 for manned flights

Surprise surprise! NASA has certified the Russian engines used in the Atlas 5 as safe for manned flights.

NASA had been claiming that, because it cannot observe every detail in how Russia builds the engines, it cannot certify them as safe for manned flight. This is, and has been, crap. The Atlas 5, with this engine, has been one of the most reliable rockets ever built.

In truth, what NASA’s bureaucracy was really doing was using these Russian engines as a wedge to slow down Boeing’s first manned flight, mainly because the commercial crew program is threatening NASA past monopoly on U.S. manned flight. Once privately built rockets and manned spacecraft fly, people are suddenly going to realize we don’t really need NASA.

Atlas 5 successfully launches Mars lander InSight

ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket early this morning successfully launched NASA’s newest Mars lander InSight.

InSight will drill a seismic probe into the Martian surface and monitor earthquake activity. This will be the first time such monitoring will occur, and the probe is planned to do it for at least two years.

The launch puts the U.S. back in a tie with China for the lead in launches this year. The standings:

13 China
8 SpaceX
5 Russia
5 ULA

Russian lawmakers introduce legislation to ban rocket engine sales to U.S.

Link here. The article provides practically no information about the legislation or its chances of passing. Instead, it focuses on the past history behind ULA’s use of the Russian RD-180 rocket engine in its Atlas 5 rocket as well as the recent efforts to replace it.

Thus, I have no idea if this legislation signals a real threat to future ULA launches or not. Moreover, the article tries to make it sound that the U.S. is entirely reliant on this rocket engine, something that is simply not true.

Nonetheless, this story underscores again the need for ULA to find a different engine to power its rockets. They shouldn’t be dependent on a rocket engiine built by a foreign power that has political motives that sometimes conflict with those of the United States.

ULA’s Atlas 5 today successfully launched three U.S. military satellites

Three U.S. military satellites, one to provide communications and the other two testing experimental engineering, were successfully launched today by ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket.

The leaders in the 2018 launch standings:

11 China
7 SpaceX
4 ULA
3 Japan
3 Russia
3 Europe
3 India

The U.S. is once again tied with China for the most launches this year.

New Air Force launch contracts for SpaceX and ULA

Capitalism in space: The Air Force announced yesterday that it has awarded launch contracts to ULA and SpaceX worth nearly $650 million.

Colorado-based ULA was awarded a $355 million contract for its launch services to deliver two Air Force Space Command spacecraft, labeled AFSPC-8 and AFSPC-12, to orbit. The missions are expected to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station by June 2020 and March 2020, respectively.

…SpaceX, meanwhile, secured a $290 million contract to launch three next-generation Global Positioning System satellites for the Air Force, known as GPS III. The first is expected to launch from the Space Coast by March 2020, either from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 40 or Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39A.

Note the price difference between the ULA and SpaceX.launches. ULA’s cost is $177.5 million per launch, while SpaceX’s is $96.7 million per launch. While it could be that the ULA launches need to cost more because of the nature of the payloads, I don’t buy it. The company simply charges too much, partly because its rockets are expensive. The Air Force however has a strategic need to have more than one launch company, so they bite their tongues and pay the larger amount.

I should add one positive aspect about ULA’s price. The price is considerably below what they used to charge, before SpaceX entered the game. Then, their lowest launch price was never less than $200 million, and usually much more. This lower price indicates they are working at getting competitive. Though SpaceX offers the Falcon Heavy at $90 million (with reused boosters) and $150 million (all new) to commercial customers, its price for the Air Force will likely be higher because of the Air Force’s stricter requirements. This means that ULA’s per launch price of $177.5 here is getting quite close to being competitive with the Falcon Heavy.

Note that the article mentions that SpaceX has also gotten two more commercial launch contracts with DigitalGlobe, so that company’s business continues to boom.

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