Tag Archives: Atlas 5

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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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Air Force issues bid requests for five future launches

Capitalism in space: The Air Force has issued a new request for bids on five future satellite launches, with SpaceX and ULA to compete for each.

The Air Force on Wednesday released a final request for proposals for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) launch services for two National Reconnaissance Office payloads, the fifth Space-Based Infrared System geosynchronous Earth orbit satellite, an Air Force Space Command mission dubbed AFSPC-44 and a secret surveillance mission code-named SilentBarker.

Proposals are due April 16 and contracts are expected to be awarded in late 2018.

…The existence of SilentBarker surfaced last year during a House Armed Services Committee strategic forces subcommittee hearing when Gen. John Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command, explained that the Air Force and the NRO were developing a “space situational awareness architecture” to help improve the protection of satellites from enemy attacks. SilentBarker is the name of the program.

Why do I have the sneaking suspicion that SilentBarker and Zuma have something to do with each other?

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ULA takes over Atlas 5 commercial marketing from Lockheed Martin

Capitalism in space: ULA has now taken over the marketing of Atlas 5 commercial launches from Lockheed Martin.

I was actually surprised when I saw this story today. I had assumed that with the merger of the launch divisions of Boeing and Lockheed Martin into the ULA joint venture in 2005 ULA had been handling this marketing already. This announcement reveals that this merger had apparently only shifted the government Atlas 5 launches to ULA’s control, and only now has the rocket’s entire business been handed to ULA.

I wonder what political in-fighting was required by ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno to get this to happen.

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Atlas 5 man-rated upgrades approved by NASA for Starliner launches

Capitalism in space: ULA announced this week that its Atlas 5 rocket has passed a NASA review that now approves the design changes necessary to allow that rocket to launch Boeing’s Starliner manned capsule.

“Design Certification Review is a significant milestone that completes the design phase of the program, paving the way to operations,” said Barb Egan, ULA Commercial Crew program manager. “Hardware and software final qualification tests are underway, as well as a major integrated test series, including structural loads. Future tests will involve launch vehicle hardware, such as jettison tests, acoustic tests, and, finally, a pad abort test in White Sands, New Mexico.”

Launch vehicle production is currently on track for an uncrewed August 2018 Orbital Flight Test (OFT).

The schedule to make that August flight happen still remains tight, but this approval brings it one step closer.

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ULA’s Atlas 5 successfully launches surveillance satellite

Capitalism in space: ULA today successfully launched a reconnaissance satellite using its Atlas 5 rocket.

This was ULA’s seventh launch for the year, putting them behind the launch rate since the company’s formation of about a dozen launches per year. At the moment the seven launches matches 2008, the year with the fewest launches. With only two launches listed for the rest of the year, 2017 could be the first time since 2010 that ULA has not reached double digits in launches.

Whether this drop represents a long term drop in business is unclear. The company is definitely under price pressure from SpaceX and others, but that pressure had not significantly reduced their launch rate in the past four years. It will take a few more years to see.

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ULA successfully launches surveillance satellite

Capitalism in space: It appears that ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket has successfully launched a National Reconnaissance Office surveillance satellite into orbit.

The reason I am qualifying the success of the launch at this moment is that, because of the national security nature of the payload, they will only release details about the success of the final orbital maneuvers long after they have been completed. Right now these details are blacked out. Update: the launch was successful.

ULA has another launch of an NRO satellite scheduled for October, a date not yet determined. Right now, the U.S. has had 20 launches in 2017, far more than any other nation, with SpaceX’s 13 launches comprising the bulk.

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ULA delays California launch because of Florida hurricane

Because some of its employees needed for a California launch in next week live in Florida, ULA has decided to delay that launch so that those employees can focus on preparing for and recovering from Hurricane Irma in Florida.

What I find interesting about this story is that it reveals that ULA, unlike SpaceX, apparently does not have more than one launch team, even though their staffing has historically been much higher. This limits their ability to do frequent launches, as well as launches from both coasts.

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ULA’s Atlas 5 successfully launches NASA communications satellite

Capitalism in space: ULA this morning successfully launched NASA TDRS-M communications satellite, following a several week delay caused by an accident during satellite preparation that forced the replacement of the satellite’s antenna.

This was ULA’s fifth launch for 2017, which is behind the once-a-month pace they have maintained for the previous five years.

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Commercial lunar mission gives launch contract to ULA

Capitalism in space: Astrobotic, a private company planning to put a lander on the Moon by 2019, has awarded its launch contract to ULA.

This initial Peregrine lunar lander will fly 77 pounds (35 kilograms) of customer payloads from six nations either above or below the spacecraft’s deck, depending on specific needs. The autonomous landing will use cameras, guidance computing and five Aerojet Rocketdyne-made hypergolic engines to set the lander down on four shock-absorbing legs.

It will stand 6 feet tall (1.8 meters) and have a diameter of 8 feet (2.5 meters).Subsequent missions envision scaling up to payload masses of 585 pounds (265 kilograms). Markets range from scientific instruments to placing mementos on the Moon.

This company had been competing for the Google Lunar X-Prize, but pulled out of the competition when it realized it couldn’t launch by the end of 2018. It continued development, however, and apparently has gathered enough customers to pay for its launch in 2019.

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The damage and repair of TDRS-M creates complicated scheduling problems

Because of the launch delay caused by the accident that damaged the antenna of NASA’s TDRS-M communication satellite, requiring its replacement, the agency is now faced with a cascading series of scheduling problems.

They are now aiming for an August 10 launch of TDRS-M on a ULA Atlas 5. This will then force a delay in the August 12 launch of a Dragon capsule to ISS to August 14, which can’t be delayed past August 16 because of a scheduled Russian spacewalk on ISS that must happen on August 17 because it involves the release of two satellites. Making things even more complicated is Dragon’s cargo, which includes mice for a rodent experiment. If it doesn’t occur before August 16, the mice will then have to be replaced with fresh mice, causing further delays.

There is then even the chance that these scheduling problems might impact SpaceX’s scheduled August 28’s launch of the X-37B, as well as ULA’s scheduled August 31 launch of surveillance satellite.

One additional tidbit: This Dragon will be the last unused cargo capsule. All future SpaceX cargo missions will use previously flown capsules.

I should add that these scheduling issues illustrate starkly the growing need for more launch sites. There is money to be made here, fulfilling this need.

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NASA and Boeing to replace damaged antenna on NASA satellite

Due to an accident during satellite launch preparations, NASA and Boeing are planning to replace a damaged antenna on NASA’s TDRS-M satellite, used by NASA mainly for communications between the ground and ISS.

The update at the link however says nothing whether the satellite will still launch on August 3, as presently scheduled. Nor have they released any information about the accident itself.

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Sierra Nevada picks ULA’s Atlas 5 for first two Dream Chaser cargo flights

Capitalism in space: Sierra Nevada has awarded ULA the contract for the first two cargo flights of Dream Chaser to ISS.

The announcement sets Dream Chaser’s first cargo flight to the International Space Station for launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, in 2020. A second ISS cargo flight is contracted to lift off the next year. “ULA is an important player in the market and we appreciate their history and continued contributions to space flights and are pleased to support the aerospace community in Colorado and Alabama,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems.

Financial terms of the contract were not disclosed.

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NASA communications satellite damaged during launch prep

A NASA TDRS communications satellite, scheduled for a August 3 launch on a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, was damaged on July 14 while it was undergoing final preparations for launch.

Though the issue apparently involves one of the satellite’s main antennas, it is unclear what happened exactly or how extensive the damage was. Furthermore, this article about the incident notes that an earlier incident had also occurred during shipping.

It is understood this latest incident is not related to a ‘close call’ that NASA was investigating earlier in the flow. That incident involved the spacecraft’s shipping container – containing environmental instrumentation – which slid a couple of feet on the trailer it was being winched on to.

If I was a customer who might want to buy the launch services of ULA, I would demand detailed information about why these incidents happened, including what measures are being taken to prevent them from occurring again.

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First Starliner manned flight delayed to late 2018

Boeing has revealed that the first manned flight of its commercial Starliner capsule will likely be delayed a few more months to late 2018.

The latest confirmed schedules from NASA show the uncrewed mission, dubbed the Orbital Flight Test (OFT), slated for No Earlier Than June 2018, followed quickly in August 2018 by the crewed flight test.

However, comments made by Chris Ferguson last month at the Paris Air Show seem to indicate that the crewed flight test is moving from its August timeframe. According to Mr. Ferguson, Director of Crew and Mission Operations for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, the first Starliner crewed test flight is aiming for “last quarter of 2018” – which would be a shift of two to five months into the October to December 2018 timeframe.

The unmanned test flight, however, remains set for a June 18, 2018 launch.

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Five satellite Air Force contract up for bid

Capitalism in space: The Air Force has announced that it will be soliciting bids from SpaceX and ULA for a 5-satellite launch contract.

Claire Leon, director of the Launch Enterprise Directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, told reporters that grouping launches together was an effort to streamline and speed the acquisition process at a time when the national security sector is demanding ever-increasing access to space. “By doing five at once, it makes our acquisition more efficient and it allows the contractors to put in one proposal,” she said.

This grouping however might make it impossible for SpaceX to win the contract, as the company’s Falcon 9 rocket might not be capable of launching all five satellites, and its Falcon Heavy has not yet flown the three times necessary before the Air Force will consider using it.

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ULA wins Air Force launch contract

Capitalism in space: The Air Force has awarded ULA a $191 million launch contract in only the third competitively bid Air Force contract in decades.

The Air Force put the STP-3 launch up for bid in September 2016, giving SpaceX and ULA until December to submit proposals. It’s just the third competitively-bid national security space launch contract after an era where ULA — a joint venture between defense industry giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin — was the government’s sole source for launches.

The effort is part of the Air Force’s “Phase 1A,” an effort to “reintroduce a competitive procurement environment” into the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, the service said. This particular phase is set to cover 15 competitively-bid launches through 2019, at which point the military hopes to have several launch providers as options.

SpaceX won the first two launch contracts, including a GPS 3 launch that was awarded in March.

This contract award is not as competitive as they make it seem. I suspect that if the Air Force was required to take the lowest bid, SpaceX would have won, since its launch prices are far less than $191 million. Instead, I think the Air Force gave this contract to ULA because SpaceX had won the previous two bids, and they wanted to give some business to ULA in order to keep that company viable.

In the short run, this policy will keep ULA above water. In the long run, the company is in serious trouble if it can’t lower its launch prices significantly.

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Air Force budget reveals cost differences between ULA and SpaceX

Eric Berger at Ars Technica has found that the most recent Air Force budget provides a good estimate of the price ULA charges the military for its launches.

According to the Air Force estimate, the “unit cost” of a single rocket launch in fiscal year 2020 is $422 million, and $424 million for a year later.

This is a complex number to unpack. But based upon discussions with various space policy experts, this is the maximum amount the Air Force believes it will need to pay, per launch, if United Launch Alliance is selected for all of its launch needs in 2020. ULA launches about a half-dozen payloads for the Air Force in a given year, on variants of its rockets. Therefore, the 2020 unit cost likely includes a mix of mostly Atlas V rockets (sold on the commercial market for about $100 million) and perhaps one Delta rocket launch (up to $350 million on the commercial market for a Heavy variant).

In other words, the $422 million estimate per launch is the most they will pay. Atlas 5 launches will certainly be less, about $100 to $150 million, while the Falcon 9 will likely be under $100 million. What they are doing is budgeting high so they guarantee they have the money they need to pay for the most expensive launches, usually on the Delta Heavy.

From my perspective, they are budgeting far too high, and if I was in Congress I would insist that this number be reduced significantly, especially considering this Air Force statement on page 109 of the budget document [pdf]:

The Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) agreed to a coordinated strategy for certification of New Entrants to launch payloads in support of NSS and other USG requirements which has so far resulted in the certification of one New Entrant. The Air Force continues to actively work with potential New Entrants to reliably launch NSS requirements. The Government may award early integration contracts to ensure each potential offeror’s launch system is compatible with the intended payload. Beginning in Fiscal Year 2018, the Air Force will compete all launch service procurements for each mission where more than one certified provider can service the required reference orbit. [emphasis mine]

The “New Entrant” is of course SpaceX. They are also saying that they are going to encourage competitive bidding now on all future launch contracts.

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Israeli student cubesat launched from Atlas 5

When the Cygnus capsule was placed in orbit yesterday, it also released a number of nanosats, one of which was a cubesat built by Israeli high school students.

More than 80 pupils in grades 9-12 at schools in Herzliya, Ofakim, Yeruham, Ofra, and the Bedouin town of Hura helped to construct Duchifat-2, which weighs just 1.8 kilograms (four pounds), and is just 20 centimeters (eight inches) tall and 10 centimeters wide. Due to its small size, the satellite has no motors and instead uses the earth’s magnetic field to keep itself correctly aligned in space.

Cubesats have generally been built and launched as college projects to help teach students the engineering behind satellites. This however was the only nanosat released by the Atlas 5 that involved high school students.

Note also that the project did not simply involve Jewish students.

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ULA successfully launches Cygnus to ISS

Capitalism in space: ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket today sucessfully launched Orbital ATK’s Cygnus freighter to ISS.

This success ends a month-long delay for the Atlas 5, which was supposed to put this Cygnus capsule in orbit last month. Hydraulic problems in the rocket and ground systems had to be fixed first.

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ULA slashes launch prices for Atlas 5

Capitalism in space: In order to compete with SpaceX ULA announced this week that it will cut its launch price for the Atlas 5 rocket by one third.

United Launch Alliance has dropped the price of its workhorse Atlas 5 rocket flights by about one-third in response to mounting competition from rival SpaceX and others, the company’s chief executive said on Tuesday. “We’re seeing that price is even more important than it had been in the past,” Tory Bruno, chief executive of United Launch Alliance, or ULA, said during an interview at the U.S. Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. “We’re dropping the cost of Atlas almost every day. Atlas is now down more than a third in its cost,” Bruno said.

It appears that they have discovered that the prime reason they lost their bid of an Air Force GPS satellite launch to SpaceX was because their price was too high.

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