Tag Archives: ULA

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.

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Air Force awards contracts to ULA, Northrop Grumman, Blue Origin

The competition heats up: The Air Force today announced contract awards to ULA, Northrop Grumman, and Blue Origin to help further the development of their new rockets.

The award to Blue Origin will be for development of the New Glenn Launch System. The award to Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems is for development of the OmegA Launch System. The award to United Launch Alliance will be for development of the Vulcan Centaur Launch System.

The Launch Service Agreements will facilitate the development of three domestic launch system prototypes and enable the future competitive selection of two National Security Space launch service providers for future procurements, planned for no earlier than fiscal year 2020.

The press release makes no mention of the amount of money being granted to these companies. Personally, I’d rather the government gave nothing until it actually bought real launch services from these companies, but it can only help the Air Force to have four different launch companies (when you include SpaceX) to draw upon. And the competition will force all four to reduce their costs and be creative.

Update: One of my readers in the comments below provided this link outlining the money granted for each contract, with ULA getting just under $1 billion, Northrop Grumman getting just under $800 million, and Blue Origin getting $500 million. This is not chicken-feed, and is in essence a subsidy for all three companies. The large amounts will act to discourage cost-savings, and in my opinion is a mistake. Whenever government bodies provide these kinds of subsidies prior to the deliver of services, the cost for the services inevitably is higher.

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ULA picks Blue Origin rocket engine for Vulcan first stage

Capitalism in space: ULA has chosen Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine to power the first stage of its next generation rocket, which they are now calling Vulcan-Centaur.

Two BE-4 engines will be used to power the Vulcan first stage. The press release does not mention anything about how they plan to recover these first stages. Earlier announcements had said that they would separate from the rocket stage and parachute down to be capture before hitting the ground.

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Has Aerojet Rocketdyne lost engine race with Blue Origin?

Aerojet Rocketdyne financial documents suggest that it has given up the bidding competition with Blue Origin to supply a rocket engine for ULA’s Vulcan rocket.

The latest financial release from aerospace manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne reveals that the company spent none of its own money on development of the AR1 rocket engine this spring. Moreover, the quarterly 10-Q filing that covers financial data through June 30, 2018 indicates that Aerojet may permanently stop funding the engine with its own money altogether—a sign the company has no immediate customers.

Although Aerojet will continue to receive some funding from the US military through next year to develop its large, new rocket engine, this money won’t be enough to bring it to completion. Instead of having a flight-ready engine for use by the end of 2019, the filing indicates that Aerojet now intends to have just a single prototype completed within the time frame.

Essentially this means ULA will have no choice but to pick Blue Origin’s engine, unless the Air Force pulls its weight and demands it take Aerojet rocketdyne, even if that means a significant delay before Vulcan can launch.

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Multiple launches today

Two launches today:

  • ULA’s last Delta 2 rocket launches ICESat-2 icecap tracking satellite for NASA
  • Indian’s PSLV rocket launches two British satellites

More details about ICESat-2 can be found here.

The PSLV launch raises India’s 2018 launch total to 4, tying Japan. The leaders in the 2018 launch standings:

24 China
16 SpaceX
8 Russia
7 ULA
5 Europe (Arianespace)

The U.S. and China are once again tied at 24 each.

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ULA’s Delta-4 Heavy successfully launches the Parker Solar Probe

ULA’s Delta-4 Heavy has successfully launched the Parker Solar Probe.

As I write this the spacecraft is in orbit, but there are several more steps needed to confirm the spacecraft is on course, including a second burn of the upper stage, its separation from the spacecraft, followed by the firing of the solid rocket kick stage and then its separation from the spacecraft. All these steps will take another 40 minutes or so, so reporting them will have to wait until tomorrow.

Update: The spacecraft has successfully separated from its last stage and is on its way.

Over the next two months, Parker Solar Probe will fly towards Venus, performing its first Venus gravity assist in early October – a maneuver a bit like a handbrake turn – that whips the spacecraft around the planet, using Venus’s gravity to trim the spacecraft’s orbit tighter around the Sun. This first flyby will place Parker Solar Probe in position in early November to fly as close as 15 million miles from the Sun – within the blazing solar atmosphere, known as the corona – closer than anything made by humanity has ever gone before.

The leaders in the 2018 launch standings:

22 China
15 SpaceX
8 Russia
6 ULA
4 Japan
4 Europe

The U.S. and China are once again tied in the national rankings, 22 each.

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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 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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NASA delays launch of Parker Solar probe, again

For the second time NASA has delayed the launch of the Parker Solar probe due to issues related to the Delta IV Heavy rocket.

The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy was originally scheduled to launch the Parker Solar Probe on Aug. 4, before what NASA described as “a minor tubing leak” was discovered at the processing facility in Titusville. The launch slipped to Aug. 6 and now NASA and its mission partners are targeting Aug. 11 for a 45-minute launch window at 3:48 a.m. from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The latest delay comes after “a small strip of foam was found inside the (spacecraft) fairing,” during final inspections after the spacecraft was encapsulated in the Delta IV Heavy nose cone, according to NASA.

The launch window closes on August 19, so there better not be many more problems.

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ULA picks Aerojet Rocketdyne engine for Vulcan upper stage

Capitalism in space: ULA has chosen an Aerojet Rocketdyne engine to power the upper stage of its next generation rocket Vulcan.

The company has not yet made a decision on the engine for the first stage, where Blue Origin’s BE-4 still appears favored over Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 engine. This decision on the upper stage could partly be a political move, giving Aerojet the upper stage in order to make it easier to give the lower stage to Blue Origin.

ULA is forced to play politics here because politicians are involved. A number of power members of Congress want Aerojet Rocketdyne to get the business, and ULA risks offending these legislators should it abandon that company entirely.

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ULA workers go on strike

ULA’s workers went on strike today, their union rejecting the company’s final contract offer.

A major point of contention, the union said, were changes made to the contracts that offered employees less general flexibility, most notably when it comes to travel. Teams often travel between Vandenberg and the Cape to support missions, such as Saturday’s successful Atlas V launch of NASA’s InSight spacecraft now bound for Mars.

“A big part of it is how they have people travel from different locations to launch,” said Jody Bennett, chief of staff and aerospace negotiator for the union. “It doesn’t give them a lot of family time. They can force you to pack up, leave and go someplace for 30 days.”

“A month away from home is a long time, especially if it’s forced on you,” Bennett said, noting that travel beyond 30 days is voluntary.

This travel clause might relate to ULA’s effort to compete with SpaceX. They have trimmed their workforce, which means they might need to bring workers in from other locations when they do a launch, rather than hire more at each launch location and have them on standby all the time.

Either way, the timing of the strike is interesting, as it arrives just after a launch with the next ULA launch not scheduled until the end of July. It seems everyone, both company and union, have timed this to do as little harm to the company as possible.

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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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Bezos releases video of BE-4 static fire test

Capitalism in space: Jeff Bezos today released a video of a 114 second engine test of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine.

I have embedded the video below the fold. The test was at 65% power, but it strongly suggests that the company is getting close to certifying this engine for use, which will then allow ULA to make its final decision on whether to use it in its Vulcan rocket. It also will allow Blue Origin to begin construction of its own New Glenn rocket, which is set to begin flights in 2020.
» Read more

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Testing of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine continues

Though he released few details, a Blue Origin company official noted at a conference last week that the company has been continuing its tests of the BE-4 engine.

“We’re getting longer duration burn times. We’re going though validating the turbomachinery very closely,” said Jim Centore, group lead for orbital mission operations at Blue Origin, during a panel discussion on launch systems at the conference. Centore didn’t disclose many details about those tests, such as thrust levels or the burn times, either of individual tests or cumulatively. “We’re continuing to make good progress,” he said. “We’ll continue that for the next several months.”

The BE-4 is the linchpin for numerous other future rockets. Blue Origin wants to use it for building its New Glenn rocket. ULA is considering it as the first stage engine for its Vulcan rocket. In both cases, design and construction of the rockets themselves can’t really proceed until the engine is locked down.

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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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Rocket Lab succeeds in placing three satellites in orbit on second test launch

Capitalism in space: The small rocket company Rocket Lab successfully placed three smallsats in orbit on the second test launch of its Electron rocket yesterday.

I have posted the video of the launch below the fold. Everything unfolded smoothly and without any issues, including the video feed. This success bodes well for Moon Express’s effort to win the Google Lunar X-Prize, which has a deadline the end of March. Though Rocket Lab had said it wants to do three test launches before initiating commercial services, they have already initiated those services with the placement of three satellites by two customers on this launch yesterday. They have also hinted that if this launch was a success they might accelerate commercial operations.

In addition, ULA successfully launched a military satellite on two days ago with its Atlas 5 rocket. The 2018 launch stands are thus as follows:

4 China
2 ULA
1 SpaceX
1 Rocket Lab
1 Japan
1 India

I should add that though the U.S.’s total matches China at the moment, the government shut down prevents any further U.S. launches. It also prevents SpaceX from doing its Falcon Heavy static fire test. (I wonder: would this be an issue if SpaceX was launching from its private launchsite at Boca Chica?)
» Read more

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India and ULA complete first launches in 2018

The competition heats up: In what looks like the beginning of what might be the most active launch year in almost three decades, India and ULA today each successfully completed their first launches of 2018.

ULA’s Delta 4 rocket launched a U.S. reconnaissance satellite, while India’s PSLV rocket placed in orbit 31 satellites, 30 of which were smallsats. For India, this was their first launch since an August PSLV launch failed when the rocket fairing did not release.

Update: I just discovered that China launched its second rocket yesterday, placing it in a tie with U.S. for most launches and ahead of everyone else.

2 China
1 SpaceX
1 ULA
1 India

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ULA settles lawsuit that said it defrauded government of $90 million

ULA has settled a lawsuit with a whistleblower who claimed the company had defrauded the federal government of at least $90 million by overbilling employee work hours.

Unlike the commercial marketplace where prices of goods and services are determined by market forces including competition, sellers in the aerospace industry face little or no competition and contract pricing is based largely on a contractor’s estimated costs, the lawsuit says.

ULA charged the government tens of millions of dollars for work that was never performed and inflated the estimated labor hours including the time required to buy parts and materials from vendors, the lawsuit says.

ULA retaliated against Scott [the whistleblower] by forcing him out of the company after he revealed the alleged illegal activities. ULA officials placed a camera above his desk, monitored and questioned his cell phone and computer use, and suggested he violated the law or engaged in improper bidding practices himself, the lawsuit says.

ULA used a system called the Keith Crohn model that creates a grid using the cost of equipment to reach an employee cost. A labor value was placed on the grid for every item ordered through the company’s purchasing department. For example, any item that cost between $1 and $1,000 would be assigned a labor value of 8 hours. It didn’t matter what part it was, the lawsuit said. The U.S. bans arbitrary cost estimates when actual data is available that establishes the cost.

The first paragraph of the quote above actually describes the bad deal that the Air Force made with ULA back in the early 2000s, giving the company a monopoly on launches while subsidizing it to the tune of $1 billion per year. That deal is now dead, and ULA is instead forced to compete with SpaceX (and soon others I hope) for launch contracts. Not surprisingly, their prices have dropped considerably.

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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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Europe finally begins to realize that reusability cuts costs

Capitalism in space: Faced with stiff and increasing competition from SpaceX, European governments are finally beginning to realize that their decades of poo-pooing the concept of rocket reusability might have been a big mistake.

In what was likely an unexpected question during a Nov. 19 interview with Europe 1 radio, French Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire was asked if SpaceX meant the death of Ariane.

“Death? I’m not sure I’d say that. But I am certain of the threat,” Le Maire said. “I am worried.” Le Maire cited figures that are far from proven — including a possible 80% reduction in the already low SpaceX Falcon 9 launch price once the benefits of reusability are realized. “We need to relfect on a reusable launcher in Europe, and we need to invest massively in innovation,” Le Maire said.

Then there was a report out of Germany that has concluded that SpaceX commitment to reusability is about to pay off.

The article also cites those in Europe and with the U.S. company ULA that remain convinced that they can compete with expendable rockets. In reading their analysis, however, I was struck by how much it appeared they were putting their heads in the sand to avoid facing the realities, one of which has been the obvious fact that SpaceX has been competitively running rings around them all. This is a company that did not even exist a decade ago. This year it very well could launch more satellites than Europe and ULA combined.

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Lockheed Martin earnings down due to its commercial space divisions

Capitalism in space: Lockheed Martin’s third quarter earnings were down by one percent, partly due to reduced earnings in its commercial space divisions.

While other factors contributed to the drop in earnings, this quote highlights an important detail about the competition in the launch industry:

Reduced profits from Centennial-based rocketmaker United Launch Alliance caused some of LMSS’ decline, the company said. ULA is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing Co. LMSS’ share of ULA’s launch-business profits dropped by $20 million to $45 million in the third quarter, the company said.

ULA’s profits dropped by one-third, which suggests that they are continuing to lose business to SpaceX because of its lower launch prices.

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Blue Origin successfully completes first test of BE-4 rocket engine

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin has successfully conducted the first static fire test of its BE-4 rocket engine.

The test was six seconds long. The company has not released any further details, other than to say it was a success. This not only puts them closer to building their New Glenn rocket, it increases the chances that ULA will choose this engine for its Vulcan rocket.

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Bigelow and ULA propose lunar station

Capitalism in space: Bigelow, builders of expandable space station modules, and ULA, building of rockets, have jointly proposed building an inexpensive lunar space station for NASA, to be launched by 2022.

The announcement build upon existing work between the two companies to study launching B330 modules, originally on the Atlas 5, Bigelow Aerospace President Robert Bigelow said in an Oct. 17 interview. He said his company decided to shift to the Vulcan vehicle and then build upon its capabilities, such as the ACES upper stage that is intended to also serve as a refuelable space tug. “There is synchronicity between what ULA has in the way of capabilities and what we’re doing,” Bigelow said. “We decided to collaborate and prepare a proposal that the White House and NASA could accept as part of an overall space plan.”

Bigelow emphasized he saw this proposal as a public-private partnership. He estimated NASA’s share of the costs to be $2.3 billion, in addition to the “hundreds of millions” being spent by both Bigelow Aerospace and ULA. “It’s executable within four years of receiving funding and NASA giving us the word,” he said.

The lunar depot would be available for both NASA and commercial uses, according to Bigelow. It could be visited by NASA Orion spacecraft launched by the Space Launch System, but he said it’s possible other spacecraft, like a version of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, could also provide transportation to and from the facility.

Bigelow also went out of his way to say that this proposal was not meant to replace NASA’s proposed Deep Space Gateway, also a lunar space station, but as a quicker and cheaper supplement that could be launched and put into service while the gateway was being built.

In other words, Bigelow wishes to be to the Deep Space Gateway what SpaceX has been to SLS/Orion, the real thing while Congress continues to pour money into a parallel boondoggle that never goes anywhere.

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