Tag Archives: ULA

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.
» Read more

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Blue Origin to deliver first BE-4 engines to ULA this summer

Capitalism in space: Development of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, to be used in both its New Glenn rocket as well as ULA’s new Vulcan rocket, appears to be finally reaching its conclusion with the planned delivery this summer of two operational engines to ULA.

The bulk of the article at the link is mostly a summary of stuff that had already been revealed about the development of the New Glenn rocket. The only new piece of information that I could glean was this engine delivery date. It is significant, however, because no rocket company can ever really design its rocket before it has finished building the rocket’s engines. With the BE-4 now complete, I would expect the development of both New Glenn and Vulcan to proceed with great speed.

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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.

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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.

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Blue Origin opens rocket engine factory

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin yesterday cut the ribbon on its main rocket engine factory in Huntsville, Alabama, while also announcing that production of their BE-4 engine for both ULA’s new Vulcan rocket and their own New Glenn rocket will begin in a few months.

In the meantime, made-in-Kent engines are being tested at Blue Origin’s West Texas site. Smith said two flight readiness engines will be delivered in May to United Launch Alliance. They’ll be used for integrated tests of ULA’s Vulcan first-stage booster, which is taking shape not far from Huntsville in Decatur, Ala.

This is excellent news. For the past year and a half the company has released little information about their progress with the BE-4 engine, suggesting that they might be experiencing issues. Yesterday’s news bursts that pessimistic balloon, indicating that both the Vulcan and New Glenn rockets will be flying, maybe as soon as next year.

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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.

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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.

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ULA backing off from reuseablity and Vulcan upgrades?

Capitalism in space: According to this Space News story today, it appears that ULA is shifting away from building a major upgrade to the upper stage of its Vulcan rocket, even as it also appears to be backing off from pushing plans to recover and reuse its first stage engines.

ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye told SpaceNews by email that the company still plans to introduce an “advanced upper stage,” but only after Vulcan flies. Rye also declined to provide a specific timeline.

Similarly, ULA officials also refused to give a timeline for when they will begin recovering Vulcan’s first stage engines and reusing them.

Right now the company expects to launch the first iteration of Vulcan, using as Atlas 5 Centaur upper stage, sometime in 2021. It also appears that those first launches will not recover the first stage Blue Origin BE-4 engines.

In the long run, I do not see how ULA can compete. They certainly appear hesitant about introducing any new innovations or upgrades to Vulcan, which will result in an expendable rocket that costs far too much.

In fact, the arrival of this apparent timidity seems to have occurred almost to the day the company accepted a development contract for Vulcan from the Air Force. Thus, it increasingly appears that it is our federal government that is squelching the company’s creativity.

Why am I not surprised?

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Russia and ULA successfully complete rocket launches

Russia and ULA both successfully placed spacecraft into Earth orbit today.

Russia sent an unmanned upgrded Soyuz capsule to ISS, filled with cargo, in a test flight that also tested a new upgraded version of the Soyuz rocket.

According to Navias, this Soyuz launch is a critical shakedown flight to test the performance of the upgraded Soyuz capsule and the Soyuz 2.1a booster before the first crewed flight on the rocket in March 2020.

“The Soyuz 2.1a booster, equipped with a new digital flight control system and upgraded engines, is replacing the Soyuz FG booster that has been used for decades to launch crews into space,” NASA officials wrote in a statement. “The Soyuz spacecraft will have an upgraded motion control and navigation system, as well as a revamped descent control system,” they added.

The mission will also help Roscosmos develop a cargo version of the Soyuz capsule capable uncrewed reentry to return experiments and other gear to Earth, Navias said. Russia’s Progress cargo ships can currently only deliver supplies, and are filled with trash and discarded at the end of their missions.

ULA in turn launched an Air Force GPS satellite in the last launch of the Delta-4 Medium version of its Delta rocket family.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

13 China
13 Russia
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 India
4 Rocket Lab
4 ULA

The U.S. leads Russia and China 19 to 13 in the national standings.

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ULA wins private lunar launch contract

Capitalism in space: Astrobotic, the private company building a lunar lander for NASA, has chosen ULA’s Vulcan rocket for its launch vehicle.

Astrobotic announced today that it selected United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket in a competitive commercial procurement to launch its Peregrine lunar lander to the Moon in 2021.

“We are so excited to sign with ULA and fly Peregrine on Vulcan Centaur. This contract with ULA was the result of a highly competitive commercial process, and we are grateful to everyone involved in helping us make low-cost lunar transportation possible. When we launch the first lunar lander from American soil since Apollo, onboard the first Vulcan Centaur rocket, it will be a historic day for the country and commercial enterprise,” said Astrobotic CEO, John Thornton.

This is the second contract announcement for ULA’s Vulcan rocket, with the first being Sierra Nevada’s announcement that it would use Vulcan for Dream Chaser’s first six flights.

Isn’t competition wonderful? It appears to me that ULA must be offering very cut-rate deals to get these contracts, since the rocket has not yet flown while SpaceX’s already operational Falcon Heavy (with three successful launches) could easily do the job and is a very inexpensive rocket to fly. These lower prices, instigated by competition and freedom, will mean that funding missions to the Moon will continue to become more likely, even if NASA and the federal government fail to get their act together.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Update on development status of ULA’s Vulcan rocket

Link here. Overall the rocket seems to be on track for its planned April 2021 launch, except it appears ULA has decided to do that launch without two new components of the rocket that previously were planned, delaying their implementation.

First, it appears that Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine might not power the rocket’s first stage in its initial flights. It seems that both companies want that engine to first fly on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, whose first launch is not set until 2021 as well.

This delay in the engine’s use has me wondering whether ULA has gotten cold feet about Blue Origin and its engine. It certainly seems to me that progress at Blue Origin has slowed considerably in the past year. For example, they promised manned flights of New Shepard that did not happen, and testing on the BE-4 seems to have gone underground.

In fact, the combination of increased hype and lack of progress has made Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos remind me increasingly of Virgin Galactic and Richard Branson, that team of endless unmet promises.

Second, it appears ULA has given the recovery and reuse of Vulcan’s first stage engines a very low priority. The technique they had chosen was to have the engines separate from the tanks and return to Earth by parafoil, protected by an inflatable heat shield. However,

A technology demonstration payload for the inflatable heat shield, which could also be used to deliver payloads to the surface of Mars, is slated to fly as a rideshare payload with NOAA’s JPSS-2 satellite aboard an Atlas V launch no earlier than 2022. [emphasis mine]

In other words, that reusable technology probably won’t be operational until well into the 2020s. Vulcan will likely be completely expendable for at least the first five years of its use.

ULA apparently has decided to take the safe technology route. Financially secure because of a $1 billion Air Force development contract to pay for Vulcan, combined with the military’s obvious desire to favor them in the awarding of future launch contracts, the company doesn’t have any incentive to innovate in any way to lower costs.

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ULA to fly Vulcan components on Atlas 5 flights

Capitalism in space: In order to speed the development of its next generation commercial rocket, the Vulcan Centaur, ULA will fly Vulcan components as they are developed on its Atlas 5 rocket.

The first Vulcan technology to fly on Atlas 5 will be new payload fairings from Swiss supplier Ruag built using an “out-of-autoclave” production process that enables fairing halves to be produced as one piece, a process Ruag says lowers production time and costs. “The out-of-autoclave fairings, which are manufactured by Ruag, and now in the U.S. — they are in a factory next to ours in Decatur — that’s going to fly on Atlas 5 this year,” Louradour said.

Sometime in 2020 they will then fly an Atlas 5 launch using the solid rocket boosters Northrop Grumman is building for Vulcan.

This is not really news. When ULA announced their plans to build Vulcan in 2015, they said then that they intended to transition from Atlas 5 to Vulcan over time, slowly introducing components on Atlas 5 until it was entirely replaced.

Nonetheless, it shows that ULA is adopting some of the the same common sense development procedures used by SpaceX. By taking advantage of launches as they happen, they can speed development. And they need to do this in order to keep pace with SpaceX.

Isn’t competition wonderful?

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SpaceX drops protest against NASA launch decision

SpaceX has decided to withdraw its protest against NASA’s decision to choose ULA as the launch vehicle for its Lucy asteroid mission.

The company did not provide any reason for the withdrawal. I suspect Musk decided that it was doing SpaceX harm both publicly and privately. Publicly it threatened the launch date of Lucy, which might cause a significant and fatal delay to the mission. That did not make SpaceX look good to the general public.

Privately, I suspect that the protest was hurting SpaceX with NASA officials. They almost certainly did not say so directly, but I am certain they were able to make this clear in any number of ways. This, combined with the agency’s new willingness to consider commercial rockets, like the Falcon Heavy, for its lunar plans, probably convinced SpaceX that it was doing itself more harm than good with the protest.

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Air Force’s launch contracting plans under scrutiny

It appears the Air Force wants to decide now which two rocket companies it will use for its launch needs in the 2022 to 2026 time period, and this desire is raising hackles among those companies.

[T]he Air Force will choose only two companies to meet its launch needs from 2022 to 2026, with one provider winning 60 percent of the contracts and the other taking 40 percent. There is no provision to on-ramp other companies during the time frame.

This sets up a rather frantic competition between the incumbents, ULA and SpaceX, and newcomers Blue Origin (with its New Glenn booster) and Northrop Grumman (with its Omega rocket). Moreover, the timing appears to prejudice the competition in favor of the incumbents, which already have existing launch systems the government can assess.

Something is really fishy here. Why does the Air Force need to limit its services to only two companies? And why do they have to make this decision now, three to seven years before the launches will occur? Common sense says you instead issue specific contract bids, for each launch, as they are needed, thus allowing as many companies as possible to compete for the business.

In fact, this policy seems to directly contradict the Air Force’s stated goal, repeated many times in the past few years, to widen competition in the launch industry, both to lower cost and to give the military strategic redundancy in its needed launch services.

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ULA’s Delta 4 rocket launches Air Force communications satellite

Capitalsm in space: ULA yesterday used its Delta 4 rocket to successfully place in orbit an Air Force communications satellite.

This is one of the last launches of the the Delta 4 member in the Delta rocket family.

The mission marked the next-to-last flight of the Delta 4 rocket variant with a single first stage core — known as the Delta 4-Medium — as ULA begins retiring segments of its launcher family in preparation for the debut of the new Vulcan booster, which the company says will be less expensive than the existing Atlas and Delta fleet.

Gary Wentz, ULA’s vice president of government and commercial programs, said the company’s decision in 2014 to retire the Delta 4-Medium was intended to reduce the company’s costs. “We started looking at the products that we were providing, and found that maintaining these two families of launch vehicles, both the Delta and the Atlas, through this period decreased our flight rate, and therefore increased our costs,” Wentz said. “That really drove it, based on the competitive industry we’re in, trying to maximize our competitiveness.”

The Delta 4-Medium family provides the same range of lift capability as the less expensive Atlas 5 rocket. The Delta 4-Heavy, which will remain operational through at least the early-to-mid-2020s, uses three Delta 4 first stage cores bolted together to haul heavier payloads to orbit than any of the Atlas 5 configurations.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

3 SpaceX
3 China
2 Europe (Arianespace)
2 Russia
2 ULA

In the national rankings, the U.S. has now widened its lead on China to 5 to 3.

Note that two different American companies are matching the launch numbers of three other whole countries. This I think illustrates well the power of freedom and competition. Rather than have a single nationalized rocket system (as was attempted in the 2000s when Boeing and Lockheed Martin created ULA, then the only American rocket company), the U.S. has transitioned back to its roots, allowing freedom to produce multiple companies competing for both private and government business. This has reduced costs, encouraged innovation, and ended up producing more jobs and wealth.

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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.

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Air Force awards launch contracts (3 each) to ULA and SpaceX

Capitalism in space: The Air Force yesterday announced the awarding of launch contracts to both SpaceX and ULA, giving each company three launches.

ULA will receive $441.76 million under a fixed-price contract to launch SBIRS GEO-5, SBIRS GEO-6 and Silent Barker, a classified space situational awareness mission.

SpaceX will receive $297 million to launch AFSPC-44, NROL-85, and NROL-87.

Note the difference in price. While the specific missions might have requirements that make the ULA launches more expensive, I suspect that most of the difference has to do with SpaceX’s ability to simply do it cheaper. The Air Force however did not give all the contracts to SpaceX because it has strategic reasons to have two independent launch companies. It also faces political pressure to support both companies, regardless of cost, as illustrated by recent stories about the political gamesmanship between SpaceX and ULA.

This story does illustrate however how the competition from SpaceX has forced ULA to lower its prices. For these three launches they are charging an average of about $147 million. Before SpaceX’s competition, their price per launch generally averaged more than $225 million. Isn’t competition wonderful?

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SpaceX protests NASA launch contract to ULA

Turf war! SpaceX has filed a protest against a NASA launch contract award to ULA for almost $150 million for the Lucy asteroid mission in 2023.

In a statement, SpaceX, the California company founded by Elon Musk, said it was the first time it had challenged a NASA contract.

“SpaceX offered a solution with extraordinarily high confidence of mission success at a price dramatically lower than the award amount,” the company said in a statement to The Washington Post. “So we believe the decision to pay vastly more to Boeing and Lockheed for the same mission was therefore not in the best interest of the agency or the American taxpayers.”

This protest might explain the politics of two other stories recently:

In the first case two California politicians are using their clout to pressure the Air Force for the benefit of SpaceX. In the second the Air Force inspector general office is using its clout to pressure the Air Force to hurt SpaceX.

All these stories illustrate the corrupt crony capitalism that now permeates any work our federal government does. In order to get government business, you have to wield political power, which means you need to kowtow to politicians and bureaucrats. Very ugly, and very poisonous.

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Military inspector general to review SpaceX’s launch certification

The swamp attacks! The inspector general for the Defense Department has begun a review of the process the Air Force used to certify SpaceX as a qualified military launch provider.

“Our objective is to determine whether the U.S. Air Force complied with the Launch Services New Entrant Certification Guide when certifying the launch system design for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle-class SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles,” the inspector general said in a memo to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson sent on Monday.

The only reason I can see for this investigation is that the launch companies that have development contracts with the military — ULA, Northrop Grumman, and Blue Origin — are applying pressure to get SpaceX eliminated as a competitor. And since there are many in the government aerospace bureaucracy who are in bed with these companies and are also hostile to SpaceX, that pressure has succeeded in getting this investigation started.

SpaceX meanwhile has successfully launched one military payload, and has two more military launches scheduled for 2019. Its prices are so low that these other companies cannot presently compete, not without political help. Worse, it appears these other companies, and the Air Force, do not appear interested in reducing the cost of their next generation rockets to become more competitive. Instead, they apparently have decided to turn the screws on SpaceX and get it eliminated as a competitor.

Meanwhile, SpaceX might be doing its own political push back, behind the scenes. At least, why else did two California lawmakers recently demand a review of the Air Force’s rocket development contracts to all of SpaceX’s competitors, but not SpaceX?

All of this has absolutely nothing to do with picking the best and cheapest launch companies to save the taxpayer money. Instead, the entire way our government operates today is completely uninterested in the needs of the nation. The focus of lawmakers and government officials is to play political games in an effort to take out their opponents. And in this battle the country be damned.

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Trump administration moves forward with reorganization of space bureaucracy

The Trump administration is moving ahead with its planned reorganization of the military’s entire space bureaucracy under the rubric of the Space Force.

The Pentagon is moving forward with plans to create a Space Force as a new military branch. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the Space Force will be small in size and its advantage will come in the form of cutting-edge technology.

Shanahan also has concluded that the existing DoD bureaucracies are not equipped to deliver next-generation space technologies quickly enough. He has directed the establishment of a Space Development Agency that would report directly to Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin. Many details are still being worked out about the SDA, but Shanahan said in a memo that he wants it set up by March 29.

Because much of the modern press does such a bad job, working from a general ignorance, I must repeat again that the goal here is not to make a space army, with laser guns and uniforms, but to centralize the various military space departments, scattered across several divisions, into one office that has some clout because it reports directly to the White House. Right now these scattered offices report to different military agencies with different and competing agendas. The result has been a poorly coordinated space policy that has been expensive and also unable to accomplish much in recent years.

Whether this reorganization will streamline things as it is intended remains an open question. The bureaucratic culture in Washington is certainly never interested in streamlining. The usual result of such efforts is a larger bureaucracy that spends even more. We shall see.

This action is also related to another story today: Lawmakers: Air Force launch procurement strategy undermines SpaceX

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) are calling for an independent review of the Air Force’s space launch procurement strategy. They contend that the Air Force, in an effort to broaden the launch playing field, is putting SpaceX at a competitive disadvantage.

In a Feb. 4 letter addressed to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Feinstein and Calvert — both with strong ties to the space industry — argue that the path the Air Force has chosen to select future launch providers creates an unfair playing field. Although SpaceX is not mentioned in the letter by name, it is clear from the lawmakers’ language that they believe the company is getting a raw deal because, unlike its major competitors, it did not receive Air Force funding to modify its commercial rockets so they meet national security mission requirements.

This second story actually illustrates the bureaucratic concerns that the Trump administration is trying to address in the first story. It appears to the elected officials that the military’s award of this contract was not necessarily in the best interests of the military, but instead was designed to help some companies at the expense of others.

The $2.3 billion in funding went to ULA, Blue Origin, and Northrop Grumman to develop their next generation rockets. Why SpaceX, considered a favorite, did not receive any funding remains unclear, though SpaceX officials have indicated that in the past they have refused government development money (for building Falcon Heavy) because of the requirements attached. It could be that SpaceX did the same here, but it is also possible that the military bureaucracy played favorites.

It is this question that the elected officials want clarified.

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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.

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Lockheed Martin’s space profits to decline in 2019 because of ULA

Capitalism in space: Lockheed Martin is projecting a decline in its space profits in 2019 because of a decline in income coming from its ULA partnership with Boeing.

In the previous quarterly earnings call in October, Bruce Tanner, Lockheed Martin’s chief financial officer, warned those earnings could be down as much as $150 million in 2019 compared to 2018. Tanner said then that both the number of [ULA] launches and the mix of vehicles contributed to that decline.

“We have more, for instance, Delta 4 launches in 2018 than we expect to have in 2019,” he said in the prior call. “Those are obviously the most profitable launch vehicles in all of ULA’s portfolio.”

In the latest earnings call, Tanner said the decline would not be as large as previously projected, estimating it to be closer $100 million. Part of the change has to do with improved performance at ULA, he said, but a bigger factor was a delay of a Delta 4 Heavy launch from late 2018 to earlier this month, shifting the profit realized from it to 2019. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted language illustrates why they are losing sales. The Delta family of rockets might bring ULA the most income, but that is because it is also its most expensive rocket to build and launch, and is also the one for which it charges the most.

Back in 2016 ULA announced that it planned to retire Delta, but it has not yet done so, probably because the company earns so much with each launch. Whether they eventually retire it or not doesn’t really matter, however, because its high cost will have it with time go the way of the horse regardless. Other cheaper rockets, such as the Falcon Heavy, are getting the business instead.

In fact, this competitive process probably explains entirely the drop in earnings expected in 2019.

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ULA successfully launches U.S. spy satellite

Capitalism in space: Using its Delta-4 Heavy rocket, the most powerful in its rocket family, ULA today successfully placed a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) spy satellite into orbit.

It was also revealed in this article that ULA plans a total of seven launches in 2019, including today’s launch, the fewest in a year since ULA was formed in 2007 from a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The standings in the 2019 launch race:

1 China
1 SpaceX
1 Japan
1 ULA

The U.S. leads in the national standings 2 to 1 over China.

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Three launches scrubbed

Capitalism in space: Both SpaceX and Blue Origin scrubbed planned launches today due to what appear to be minor technical issues.

SpaceX was launching a GPS satellite for the military, while Blue Origin was going to fly its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft on its third flight. SpaceX will try again tomorrow, while Blue Origin has not yet announced a new launch date.

Meanwhile, ULA’s attempt to launch a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) spy satellite tonight with its most powerful rocket, the Delta 4 Heavy, faces bad weather, with only a 20% chance of launch.

UPDATE: I missed a third launch scrub today, Arianespace’s attempt to launch a trio of French military satellites using a Soyuz rocket from French Guiana. They will try again tomorrow.

This means there will be three launch attempts tomorrow, since India plans a launch of its GSLV rocket as well.

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Why ULA picked Blue Origin’s engine over Aerojet Rocketdyne

In an interview of ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno by Eric Berger of Ars Technica, he subtly revealed why his company in the end favored Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine over Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 in the design of the Vulcan rocket.

Unlike many of the new entrants that you talk about coming in today, we’re not a startup company living off investor capital; we’re a mature business. We have to close a business case on Vulcan itself. So where our strategic partners [Editor’s note: This is a reference to Blue Origin] brought investment as well as schedule, that was a pretty important factor. It became pretty obvious what the right choice was, and we arrived at it with our stakeholders.

In other words, Blue Origin’s willingness to invest its own capital in engine development was a major factor. Aerojet Rocketdyne was using the old model of big space, whereby all development money came from the government. It had been unwilling to commit any of its own funds to engine development. This reluctance implied it wasn’t really committed to the project. If Air Force funding disappeared, they’d back out, leaving ULA in the lurch.

This tidbit from Bruno also suggests that he and the management at ULA are sincerely working to reshape ULA from an old big space company, totally reliant on the subsidies given by the government, into a modern competitive company focused instead on building an affordable product that customers will want to buy.

This story also tells us a lot about Aerojet Rocketdyne’s future, or lack thereof. The rocket industry is changing, and if that company doesn’t change also, it will soon die.

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Delta Heavy launch aborts at T-7.5 seconds

A ULA Delta Heavy aborted its launch of a secret National Security Administration surveillance satellite last night at T-7.5 seconds.

It was not immediately clear whether any of the rocket’s three Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68A main engines started their ignition sequences, but a statement later released by ULA said the computer-controlled countdown sequencer ordered an abort at T-minus 7.5 seconds.

In the statement, ULA said the abort was “due to an unexpected condition during terminal count at approximately 7.5 seconds before liftoff. “The team is currently reviewing all data and will determine the path forward. A new launch date will be provided when available,” ULA said.

Obviously, there is no word yet on a new launch date.

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