Military / National Security News
In a breathless exposition of the attributes of his company’s new rocket, United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Tory Bruno promised it “changes everything” about space launch and the future use of space.
Bruno announced the rocket’s name, Vulcan, and details about it and the company's new business strategy at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, CO today. The name was chosen by over one million participants in a ULA naming contest. Zeus and GalaxyOne were runners-up.
Bruno laid out a four step plan. First, ULA will introduce the new Vulcan rocket in 2019. It basically will be an Atlas V rocket with a Centaur upper stage, but instead of a single Russian RD-180 engine, it will use two Blue Origin BE-4’s. It will have 20 percent more lift capability than the Atlas V and be less expensive.
Second, ULA will introduce a new upper stage to replace Centaur in 2023. The Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) is what will change everything about utilization of space, Bruno said.
Third, ULA will introduce reusability by recovering the Vulcan’s first stage engines. Instead of trying to recover the entire first stage – as SpaceX is doing with Falcon – ULA will separate the engines from the booster after they have completed their task of sending a payload into space. Using a hypersonic decelerator, the engines will return Earthward where they will be scooped out of mid-air by helicopters, thereby avoiding immersion in sea water.
The fourth step introduces an era of “distributed lift” in 2024 where various elements of a space facility will be sent into orbit by Vulcan rockets separately and assembled in orbit using the ACES upper stage, which can be restarted many times and move objects from one location to another. Bruno envisions fuel depots, water depots, and commercial human habitats and the overall commercial utilization of space benefiting from this capability.
ULA’s dramatic plans are stimulated by equally dramatic changes in the U.S. launch services market over the past year.
ULA was created in 2006 by the Air Force, Boeing and Lockheed Martin when the market for launch services was insufficient to support both companies’ rockets – Delta IV and Atlas V, respectively – but the Air Force wanted to be able to use both of them to ensure its national security satellites could be launched whenever needed.
The ULA launches are very expensive, however, and the Atlas V uses Russian RD-180 engines. Competition from SpaceX and the deterioration in the U.S.-Russian relationship because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine have changed the landscape. Congress has made clear that it does not want U.S. national security satellite launches to be dependent on a foreign supplier, and they want the Air Force to embrace competition from “new entrants” like Space X.
The FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act requires the Secretary of Defense to stop using RD-180s for national security launches by 2019, although waivers are possible under certain circumstances. Bruno reiterated today that the initial version of Vulcan will be ready by 2019, but added that it would be used for commercial launches in the beginning. He does not anticipate launching for the Air Force until 2022-2023, after the rocket is certified. The Air Force is asking Congress to amend the law to give it more time to transition from Atlas V with its RD-180s to the new ULA rocket.
Meanwhile, SpaceX expects to be certified to compete with ULA for national security launches this summer.
These events have spurred ULA to rethink its future and Bruno was brought in as President last August. Today was the unveiling of ULA’s new strategy and new rocket.
ULA’s primary plan is to use two liquid oxygen (LOX)/methane BE-4 engines built by Blue Origin to replace the single RD-180 used in an Atlas V today. The company has a backup plan with Aerojet Rocketdyne for a traditional LOX-kerosene engine (AR1) in case the BE-4 development encounters problems. ULA will decide between the two in 12-18 months, Bruno said.
Perhaps the most visionary aspects of ULA’s plans are reusing the Vulcan first stage engines and its plans for the ACES upper stage.
After separating from the first stage, the engines would use an “advanced hypersonic decelerator heat shield” to return towards Earth where they would be snatched out of mid-air by a helicopter and returned to the ULA factory where they would ”plop” into the next booster in line for launch. Bruno said it would result in a 90 percent reduction in booster propulsion cost.
But it is the ACES upper stage that is the “game changer.” A ULA graphic used at today’s briefing exclaims “Orbital Capabilities Unleashing Mankind’s Potential in Space.” Bruno listed asteroid mining, building infrastructure for “real and permanent human presence,” including fuel depots, water depots, and commercial human habitats, as examples of what ACES will enable by reusing the cryogenic upper stage’s leftover liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen so it can remain in orbit for weeks, avoiding the "boil off" that limits the lifetime of cryogenic upper stages now. The ACES Integrated Vehicle Fluids System will utilize the liquid hydrogen and oxygen to repressurize the fuel tanks, generate electrical power, and provide control thrust and attitude thrust. ULA is working with the Rousch race car company on the advanced internal combustion engine that makes it all possible, so it is "the formula race car of space," Bruno quipped.
With that capability, “We can do anything you can imagine,” he promised.
Bruno also offered “one teaser” – ULA plans something called “FastBuy ReadyLaunch” that will “revolutionize” the way launch services are purchased. He said the company would provide details about it this summer.
Bruno declined to say how much Vulcan or ACES will cost. ULA is paying for the development itself, but, as he said at a recent House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing, he will not turn down any help the government might want to offer. ULA will pay for it out of its profits and he acknowledged that ULA’s parent companies – Boeing and Lockheed Martin – essentially are investing in Vulcan by allowing ULA to use the profits this way.
A video of the press conference is posted on YouTube.
This busy week begins today (Sunday), so lace up your running shoes. Here is our list of upcoming space policy related events for April 12-17, 2015. The House and Senate return to work from their Easter break tomorrow.
During the Week
Today, April 12, is the 54th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's flight into space aboard Vostok 1, marking the beginning of the human spaceflight era. It is also the 34th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight (though that is a coincidence, the flight was scheduled for April 10, but postponed by two days at the last minute). Yuri's Night celebrations will be held in many locations around the globe. There is a website where you can check to find if there's one in your area and, if not, ideas on how to start one.
Before that, though, are three pre-launch briefings associated with SpaceX's sixth operational cargo launch to the International Space Station (ISS) tomorrow, SpX-6. The weather forecast is iffy (60 percent chance "go"), but if the launch does take place, SpaceX plans to try again to land the Falcon 9 first stage on its autonomous drone ship whimsically named "Just Read the Instructions." Today's briefings are at 1:30, 3:30 and 5:00 pm ET. Tomorrow's launch is at 4:33 pm ET, with a post-launch press conference about 90 minutes later. All will be broadcast on NASA TV. All times are subject to change, of course.
Curiously, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) chose the same time as SpaceX's launch to announce "America's Next Rocket" at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs that begins tomorrow and runs through Thursday. Their event is at 4:00 pm Eastern (2:00 pm local time in Colorado) and will be webcast. ULA President Tory Bruno will tell the world what name was selected via its recent naming contest and other details of the new "all American" rocket. ULA currently launches Atlas V and Delta IV. The debate over the Atlas V's reliance on Russia's RD-180 rocket engines has been discussed on this website for the past year (type "RD-180" in the search box above to find those articles). This rocket is intended to end U.S. reliance on Russia and be more competitive with, among others, SpaceX. Perhaps by choosing the same time to make this announcement as the SpaceX launch, ULA is starting the competition -- for attention, at least -- right now.
There likely will be breaking news throughout the week from the Space Symposium, but a lot will be happening elsewhere, too. On Thursday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will testify to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in the morning (note that it is at 9:00 am ET, not 10:00 as usual) and to the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee in the afternoon (2:30 pm ET) about NASA's FY2016 budget request. The Senate hearing was postponed from March 5 when a snowstorm shut down DC.
Those and the many other events we know about as of this morning are listed below.
Sunday, April 12
Monday, April 13
Monday-Thursday, April 13-16
Monday-Friday, April 13-17
Monday, April 13 - Friday, April 24
Tuesday, April 14
Thursday, April 16
Gen. John Hyten, Commander of Air Force Space Command, believes that the government’s cost-plus contract with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) that covers infrastructure and engineering services must be changed if “fair competition” is to be achieved in the national security space launch market.
Testifying to a House Armed Services Committee (HASC) panel on March 25, Hyten said “I don’t think you can have fair competition with that contract in place. There'll have to be a change.”
Government payments to ULA for launches of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) –Atlas V and Delta IV – have two components: EELV Launch Services (ELS) and EELV Launch Capabilities (ELC). ELS is a fixed price contract that covers hardware, while ELC is a cost-plus-incentive-fee contract that pays for infrastructure and engineering support.
Hyten said the ELC contract was created because the U.S. launch industry’s industrial base was in a “fragile” state in the mid-2000s. The robust commercial launch market that had been forecast to develop did not do so. At the time, Lockheed Martin and Boeing were competitors, offering the Atlas V and Delta IV, respectively, for both commercial and government launches. Without sufficient commercial launches, the market was insufficient to support both companies against international competition.
The Air Force needed Atlas and Delta to place its satellites into orbit whenever necessary, so “we created the ELC contract as a way to make sure that even if we didn’t launch, and there were years that we launched very small numbers of satellites, there will still be a healthy industrial base,” Hyten explained.
Times have changed, however, and with the emergence of “new entrants” like SpaceX, the time has come to alter the way the government procures launches, according to Hyten. Mr. Dyke Weatherington, the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space, Strategic and Intelligence Systems, agreed. He said DOD is “modifying and continuing to evolve its space launch capability to take advantage of the competitive launch environment that we see coming in the future.”
SpaceX is awaiting certification from the Air Force to be able to compete with ULA for launches of national security satellites. After assurances that the certification would be complete by the end of last year, and a subsequent announcement by the Air Force of a delay, there appears to be agreement between the two that SpaceX will be certified by this summer.
The March 25 hearing on national security space issues was before the HASC Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, which held a hearing specifically on space launch issues a week earlier. Hyten testified at both. Subcommittee chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) said at the March 25 hearing that he was offering Hyten an opportunity to give his perspectives on the ELC contract because Hyten did not have a chance to do so at the previous hearing.
The March 25 hearing looked broadly at national security space issues and the witnesses were a who’s who of national security space decision-makers. Topics spanned a broad range of issues, including protecting U.S. satellites from threats by other countries, such as China. Doug Loverro, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, said that the United States is reacting to the threat posed by China and “making it very clear we have no desire to have a conflict extended to space,” but that the “U.S. will be prepared to defend our space assets.”
A key message repeated by many of the witnesses is that “we can no longer view space as a sanctuary.” Loverro emphasized that other countries understand U.S. reliance on space assets and “want to take it away from us. We won’t let them.” Still, the United States “remains committed to assuring the peaceful use of space by all” because it is a “global good” and a “driver for economic growth, environmental monitoring, verification of treaties and enabler for everyday citizens at home and abroad.”
Here is our list of space policy-related events for the week of April 6-10, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate remain in recess for the Easter holidays; they will return on April 13.
During the Week
The week is dominated by meetings of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and three of its committees. Perhaps of most interest to readers of this website will be the meetings of the NAC Science and NAC Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) committees, especially their joint sessions in the afternoon of April 7 and morning of April 8, and the meeting of the full NAC on Thursday and Friday. NAC and its committees cover the entire scope of NASA's activities, but their meetings lately have focused a great deal on the future of the human spaceflight program including the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and the Evolvable Mars Campaign.
While traditionally such topics would have been relegated to the human spaceflight side of the house, a great deal of emphasis in Charlie Bolden's tenure is being placed on getting NASA's science and human exploration communities working together in common purpose, overcoming their traditional animosity towards each other. Animosity may be too strong of a word. Or not. It depends on who has the podium.
One thing for sure is that the message from the presentation to the NAC Planetary Science Subcommittee (PSS) last week by the new NASA Mars exploration program director Jim Watzin is that the future robotic Mars program is being designed to "Inform and enable human mission design" as much as to answer scientific questions. After the Mars 2020 rover, Watzin said, the next Mars mission will be an orbiter, prompting some subcommittee members to ask: "what happened to sample return?" It will be interesting to see if that conversation continues at the NAC meetings this week.
Another interesting tidbit that came of the PSS meeting last week is that the "AGs" are no longer part of the NASA advisory process. Those are "Assessment Groups" or "Analysis Groups" that focus on a specific topic of research interest. One example is the Venus Exploration Analysis Group (VEXAG) that is meeting near NASA's Langely Research Center this week. According to NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green, a change in the NAC charter last year left these AGs out of the advisory process, meaning that for these groups of scientists to meet, they must work through NASA's more laborious procedures to hold a conference with consequent potential limitations on attendance, for example. Green said he has taken the lead for the Science Mission Directorate is working with NASA's lawyers to find out if the change was intentional or an unintended consequence and what it all means for the future of the AGs. Planetary science is not the only NAC Science subcommittee that uses AGs, but it has the most.
Also of special interest to space policy aficionados is the book signing event on Tuesday evening at George Washington University. John Logsdon will talk about and sign copies of his new book on President Nixon's role in U.S. space policy and programs. Nixon, of course, was the President who oversaw the end of the lunar Apollo missions and had to decide the future of the human spaceflight program in that era. Logsdon's book details how Nixon's decisions still shape the program today. Logsdon is a very highly regarded authority on space policy and space history -- the "dean" of space policy -- and author of two books on President Kennedy's role in the Apollo program.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday-Wednesday, April 6-8
Tuesday, April 7
Tuesday-Wednesday, April 7-8
Thursday, April 9
Thursday-Friday, April 9-10
Here is our list of space policy related events coming up in the next week and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in recess for the next two weeks -- their annual Easter Recess.
During the Week
The lack of congressional activities makes more time for all the other interesting events coming up, including the National Research Council's Space Science Week -- there's an excellent public lecture associated with it on Wednesday evening, meetings of several NASA Advisory Council (NAC) subcommittees, and a very interesting meeting of the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC).
To start things off, Roger Launius and Nathan Bridges will hold another of their Space Policy and History Forums tomorrow afternoon at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) on the Mall. The forum meets quarterly and does a great job of introducing new people, topics and ideas to the space policy and history community. Tomorrow is no exception. Teasel Muir-Harmony of the Center for the History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics will talk about "Astronaut Ambassadors: The Apollo 11 Diplomatic Tour and the Role of Spaceflight in Public Diplomacy." Her research focuses on the use of the U.S. space program in public diplomacy during the Cold War. The meeting is at 4:00 pm ET. Be sure to RSVP to Roger in advance to get on the list that allows access to the museum's office area.
The NAC Planetary Science Subcommittee and the Heliophysics Subcommittee will each meet tomorrow and Tuesday at NASA Headquarters. NAC's Ad Hoc Task Force on STEM Education meets there on Friday afternoon. NASA's Applied Sciences Advisory Committee, which is not part of NAC, also is meeting on Monday, virtually we think.
The NRC's Space Science Week, organized by the Space Studies Board (SSB), brings together its five standing committees in individual and plenary sessions. The meetings will take place Tuesday-Thursday, but some are closed, including all day Thursday. All are at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) building on Constitution Avenue, not at the Keck Center on 5th Street. Beginning last year, the SSB instituted the practice of holding a public lecture in connection with Space Science Week for the general public as well as the space science community. This year, Jason Kalirai of the Space Telescope Science Institute will talk about "Our Place in the Universe: As Seen Through Past, Present and Future Telescopes." That's on Wednesday at 6:30 pm ET at the NAS building.
If you are more attuned to commercial space than space science or history, you're in luck, too. COMSTAC meets on Wednesday and opens at breakneck speed with talks by three of the most influential government policymakers in the commercial spaceflight arena: FAA's own George Nield (8:05-8:20 am ET), NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden (8:20 - 8:45 am), and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee (8:45-9:15 am). The agenda (current as of yesterday) is available from our calendar.
And for those of you still hankering for more ideas on how the future of human spaceflight should unfold, the Planetary Society is holding a "Humans Orbiting Mars" workshop at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs on Tuesday and Wednesday. Participation is by invitation only (so it is not in our list), but they will hold a press conference on Thursday at 11:00 pm ET to share their results.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, March 30
Monday-Tuesday, March 30-31
Tuesday-Thursday, March 31-April 2
Wednesday, April 1
Thursday, April 2
Friday, April 3
Here is our list of space policy related events coming up for the week of March 23-27, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate will be in session.
During the Week
Another busy week in the space policy business is coming up. In the NASA realm, the Senate Commerce Committee's expected approval of Dava Newman's nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator on Wednesday surely is at the top of the list. It is only one step in the process, and the challenge of getting anyone's nomination through the Senate these days is all too apparent, but the fact that the committee did not see a need to hold a hearing on the nomination is a good sign.
Perhaps -- but just perhaps -- even bigger news will come from the Mission Concept Review (MCR) for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). A NASA spokesman says the MCR is on Tuesday (it is not open to the public), but still cannot forecast whether it will result in the long awaited announcement of whether Option A or Option B won the toss for how to implement the mission. NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot planned to reveal the decision in December, but ultimately announced that more time was needed. NASA CFO David Radzanowski said the day the FY2016 budget request was released in February that the choice could be announced in days, at the MCR, or afterwards, he simply did not know. Lightfoot is scheduled to speak at Thursday's USRA/Space Policy Institute symposium, which is about Near Earth Objects (NEOs) -- asteroids and comets -- and other small bodies in the solar system, an opportunity to share the results of the MCR, though it is not clear he will do so. The symposium has a lot of other very interesting speakers, too. Unfortunately, we're told it will not be webcast.
The House Science, Space and Technology Committee's hearing on Tuesday about the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) should be especially interesting with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's John Mather there to talk about the science JWST will be able to accomplish. Mather, a Nobel Prize winner in Physics and JWST's Senior Project Scientist, is exceptionally good at conveying to a non-scientific audience what we do and don't know about the universe, why we need to know more, and how JWST will move us along that path. NASA science head John Grunsfeld will also be there, along with Cristina Chaplain from GAO and Jeffrey Grant from Northrop Grumman, JWST's prime contractor. Grunsfeld, an astrophysicist and former astronaut who repaired the Hubble Space Telescope on three shuttle missions, also excels at communicating science to non-scientists, but probably will be handling programmatic questions about whether JWST will meet its cost and schedule targets (its previous cost overruns and delays are legendary).
On the military space front, the House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing specifically on the FY2016 budget request for national security space activities. Several hearings have already touched on some of those issues, including last week's hearing on assured access to space, but this is focused on the entire national security space enterprise with a who's who of its leadership in the military and intelligence communities.
Lots more on tap, too, including the launch of Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko on their one-year mission to ISS.
Here is list of all the events we are aware of as of Saturday afternoon.
Monday, March 23
Tuesday, March 24
Tuesday-Thursday, March 24-26
Wednesday, March 25
Thursday, March 26
Thursday-Friday, March 26-27
Friday, March 27
A lengthy House subcommittee hearing with top officials from the government and private sector yesterday (March 17) left as many questions as answers on how to assure “assured access” to space for national security satellites. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) remarked at one point “The more I learn, the more confused I get.” Maj. Gen. Howard “Mitch” Mitchell (Ret.) offered perhaps the sagest advice, recommending a new Space Launch Modernization Plan be developed, akin to the Moorman study of the 1990s.
Sanchez’s statement is a succinct exposition of what came out of the hearing before the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), which featured two panels. The first was composed of United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Tory Bruno and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. The second was mostly government witnesses: Katharina McFarland, DOD assistant secretary for acquisition; William LaPlante, Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition; Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command; and Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Howard “Mitch” Mitchell, who now works for the Aerospace Corporation, but was testifying in his personal capacity as chairman of last year’s study group on alternatives to the RD-180 engine (the “Mitchell Commission”).
The hearing, scheduled to begin at 3:30 pm ET, started 45 minutes late because the members were on the House floor casting votes. Once it began, opening statements by members and witnesses were brief, but the question-and-answer period was extensive and the hearing lasted until 6:30 pm ET with subcommittee chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) finally drawing it to a close even though he seemed to have many more questions that he wished to pose.
That pretty well characterizes the hearing – leaving as many questions as answers. One interesting aspect was the change in tone between witnesses for SpaceX (Shotwell) and Air Force Space Command (Hyten) who, while on different panels, sang each other’s praises after a bruising year in which SpaceX sued the Air Force for awarding ULA a sole-source contract in 2013. SpaceX dropped the suit in January after a settlement was reached. The terms of the settlement were sealed by the judge, but whatever they are, the two parties seem determined to present a united public face now. (Rogers asked whether SpaceX or ULA would have any objection to the subcommittee seeing the terms of the agreement. Shotwell and Bruno each said it was fine with them, but only the court could make that decision.)
Shotwell emphasized again and again that SpaceX and the Air Force are working “shoulder to shoulder” to get the Falcon 9 certified to compete for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV)-class launches. Air Force officials publicly promised during 2014 that certification would be completed by that December, but it was delayed and now is expected by June. For his part, Hyten lauded SpaceX and said that people who might have bet against the company meeting its goals in the past would have lost. Although he joined other government witnesses in agreeing that Shotwell’s expectation that SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rocket will be ready to launch national security satellites by 2018 is optimistic, he said SpaceX has been “amazing, so I won’t say it’s impossible.” He also downplayed a statement made by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James at an earlier hearing where she mentioned that some of the SpaceX launches experienced anomalies. Hyten acknowledged that SpaceX has had some problems, which are “proprietary,” but “we’ve had the same things with Atlas and Delta.” The key is that all of the launches were “mission successes,” he stressed.
The issues debated at the hearing basically are how to end U.S. reliance on Russia’s RD-180 engines, used for ULA’s Atlas V rocket, and how to create competition in the U.S. national security space launch marketplace. ULA has almost exclusively launched U.S. national security satellites on the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets since it was created in 2006 as a joint company owned 50-50 by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the two companies that had been providing those launch services on Atlas and Delta respectively. The creation of ULA was driven by market factors and government requirements.
An archived webcast is available on the committee’s website. The central questions were:
Overall, many of the subcommittee members and all of the witnesses other than SpaceX seemed to want Congress to change Section 1608 to allow RD-180 engines to be used for the Atlas V until 2021-2022 when ULA’s Next Generation Launch System (NGLS) with an American-made engine is ready. SpaceX’s position is that no more RD-180s are needed because its Falcon 9 and new Falcon Heavy – which it plans to launch for the first time later this year -- can provide the launch capability and redundancy needed to assure U.S. access to space after 2018.
Section 1608 requires DOD to develop an American replacement for Russia’s RD-180 engines by 2019, but it also contains a number of waivers that seem to add flexibility if an American replacement is not ready by then. Nonetheless, the witnesses other than SpaceX clearly view 2019 as a hard cut-off date and want it extended. Also, Air Force acquisition official LaPlante explained in his written statement that the language allows use only of RD-180s that were purchased or included in a legally binding contract prior to February 1, 2014 (when Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula) and according to the documentation DOD has available “only a small number of engines actually meet that statutory language.” DOD wants Congress to clarify that all of the RD-180 engines intended to be purchased under ULA’s current contract can be utilized.
ULA’s Development of New Engines – BE-4 and AR1
Last fall, ULA and Blue Origin announced that they are partnering to develop the BE-4 rocket engine, which uses methane as fuel, as an RD-180 alternative. At the hearing, Bruno said that ULA also has a “backup” plan with Aerojet Rocketdyne to develop the AR1, which uses traditional kerosene. Bruno said the BE-4 is three years ahead of AR1 in development and ULA will choose one of the two to pursue in 2016 or 2017. The new engine would be used for ULA’s NGLS that ultimately will replace both Atlas and Delta. Whichever engine is chosen, the NGLS will require a significant redesign of tankage and launch pad modifications.
Bruno asserted that the engine development is “largely privately funded.” “I do not require government funding, but there are wise investments the government can make to reduce risk and I won’t say no to help,” he said.
An interesting wrinkle in the discussion came up late in the hearing when subcommittee chairman Rogers made clear that what he wants is an American version of the RD-180, not a new engine that would require changes to the rest of the Atlas V rocket or launch pads. LaPlante said that “we build the rocket around the engine” and Mitchell explained that “you can’t jack up the Atlas V and put in a new engine,” but Rogers said that is exactly what he wants to do. That is not one of the options currently being pursued by ULA, however.
Significant discussion occurred concerning the prices charged by SpaceX and ULA. Shotwell explained that she does not know what ULA charges the government, but it was awarded an $11 billion contract for 28 launches (the “block buy” contract signed in 2013), which SpaceX calculates to be an average of $400 million per launch.
She said a Falcon 9 average price is $60 million for commercial customers and $80-90 million for the government, which has special requirements, and the cost to the government for a Falcon Heavy launch will be about $150-160 million. That yields an average cost across all its vehicles of about $120 million, she said, roughly 25 percent of ULA prices. Asked how SpaceX can offer such low prices, she replied that “I don’t know how to build a $400 million rocket” and “I don’t understand how they are as expensive as they are.”
Bruno said he did not recognize the $400 million number and the cost of an Atlas V 401 launch, equivalent to a Falcon 9, is $164 million on average and will be about $140 million in the future. Averaged across all of the launches envisioned in the block buy, the cost is $225 million, he said, a 30 percent reduction from its prices before the block buy. He did acknowledge separately that the cost of a Delta IV Heavy launch today is $400-600 million.
DOD acquisition official McFarland’s written statement clarifies that the “gap” they are worried about is a period late in this decade “without at least two price competitive launch providers servicing medium to intermediate class missions.”
That is an important point. It is not a gap in the U.S. ability to launch satellites, but whether there is competition for medium and intermediate class payloads. Hyten said “gap” is not the right word, it is really about a “transition” between 2018 and 2022, but everyone else referred to it as a gap.
The gap is precipitated in part by ULA’s recent decision to discontinue the single stick version of the Delta IV, leaving the Atlas V as its only launch vehicle for that class of payload. If Atlas V is no longer available after 2019, and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is not ready by then, these intermediate size payloads would have to be launched by the more capable Delta IV Heavy, but the price would be prohibitive. Bruno assured the subcommittee that he is committed to launching the Delta IV Heavy as long as the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) needs it. If it is ULA’s only rocket, however, all of ULA’s fixed costs would have to be absorbed in those launch costs, raising the price from the current $400-600 million per launch to “upwards” of $1 billion, Bruno said.
Subcommittee chairman Rogers asked incredulously if Bruno thought the government would pay that much per launch and Bruno said no, but Mitchell – who has long experience with national security space launch – pointed out that in the 1990s, launch costs were $550 million “and we launched 41 of them.” The suggestion was that when escalated to today’s dollars, the cost would not be much different.
Bruno told the subcommittee that he decided to terminate the Delta IV single stick as soon as its current commitments are met around 2018 because it cannot compete in the current marketplace.
Curiously, no one questioned ULA’s decision to phase it out even though that seems to be a critical driver in this debate.
The solution to the gap sought by ULA and witnesses on the government panel are to purchase enough RD-180 engines so the Atlas V can remain available until SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and ULA’s NGLS are ready in 2021-2022. Shotwell insisted that Falcon Heavy would be ready and certified for flight by 2018, but the other witnesses considered that an optimistic timetable.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) asked about the business case for either ULA or SpaceX and whether the government needs to guarantee a number of launches to make their businesses viable. DOD’s McFarland said that from what she has seen, all the launch providers are competing for the same pie.
Shotwell said that 60 percent of the SpaceX market is commercial, while Bruno said that ULA’s is “just under 20 percent” today.
Is Falcon 9 “American”?
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) grilled Shotwell on SpaceX’s assertion that Falcon is an all-American rocket. He forced Shotwell to acknowledge that certain raw materials like aluminum and a GPS “box” are from foreign sources, but “99 percent” is American, she asserted. Bishop challenged her by asking if she knew there is a statute in California (where SpaceX is based) that would not allow the company to advertise its product as all-American and Shotwell said she was not aware of it.
Bruno said that in the interest of cost cutting, ULA will be reducing the number of launch pads it has from five to two – one on the east coast and one on the west coast.
A Potential Path Forward
Mitchell articulated what is perhaps the clearest statement on what is needed to move forward on a plan for assured access to space. In his written statement, he said the government needs to take ownership of the issue and define the desired end-state, take action to reach that end-state, and “adequately resource” the plan.
He recommended that the government initiate an effort similar to the Space Launch Modernization Plan (the Moorman report) of the 1990s “with all the stakeholders participating to assess the risks of the current and planned activities” and make recommendations on how to mitigate them. Quoting an unnamed “colleague and friend,” Mitchell wrote: “Currently no stakeholder has a credible plan that ‘closes.’ Each stakeholder has a different endgame solution, and each stakeholder’s current ‘non-closing’ game plan has ‘and then a miracle happens’ as the last element of their plan…and ALL the miracles are different.”
Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and James Inhofe (R-OK) wrote to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last week to complain that DOD is not following congressional direction to expeditiously develop a U.S. propulsion system to replace Russia's RD-180.
The letter is dated March 10 and briefly states that congressional direction in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is quite clear that DOD is to develop a new rocket propulsion system by 2019 and authorized $220 million in FY2015 to that end, and the FY2015 appropriations act includes that $220 million. Written in the first person (it is not clear whether it is Inhofe or Nelson -- both signed it), the letter says "my observations to date leave me skeptical that DoD or the U.S. Air Force are following Congressional intent."
Both Senators are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).
The letter says that the direction in the NDAA is consistent with last year's Air Force-chartered RD-180 Availability Risk Mitigation Study, which was chaired by Maj. Gen. Howard "Mitch" Mitchell (Ret.). Mitchell is scheduled to be one of the witnesses at this afternoon's hearing across the Hill before the House Armed Services Committee on "Assuring Assured Access to Space." Air Force Space Command Commander Gen. John Hyten is also scheduled to testify, along with DOD and Air Force acquisition officials and representatives of SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.
Here is our list of space policy related events coming up during the week of March 16-20, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session.
During the Week
It's another busy week with two major conferences, lots of congressional hearings, a NAC subcommittee meeting and more.
It is tough to choose what to highlight because it's all really good stuff, but to pick just one, the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee hearing on Tuesday should be especially interesting. The title is "Assuring Assured Access to Space" and witnesses include SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell and United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Tory Bruno along with two defense department acquisition officials, commander of Air Force Space Command Gen. Hyten, and retired Maj. Gen. Mitch Mitchell who led a study of RD-180 alternatives last year. Topics are expected to include certifying new entrants like SpaceX to launch EELV-class national security satellites currently launched exclusively by ULA and the need (or not) for a new American-made rocket engine to replace Russia's RD-180 used for ULA's Atlas 5. SpaceX's position is that its Merlin engines for the Falcon rockets already are an American alternative so why is another one needed. ULA, meanwhile, announced last fall that it is partnering with Blue Origin on the BE-4 engine as an American alternative. Everything seemed on a fast track last fall with Congress insisting on no more RD-180s after 2019 (though there are exceptions),but this year's testimony by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and ULA's most recent statements seem to be putting the brakes on. Whether that's a dose of reality or slow-rolling the inevitable is unclear at the moment -- perhaps the hearing will shed some light.
Monday-Friday, March 16-20
Monday-Thursday, March 16-19
Tuesday, March 17
Tuesday-Wednesday, March 17-18
Wednesday, March 18
Thursday, March 19
The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will hold a hearing next week on "Assuring Assured Access to Space" with industry and government witnesses. Building an American alternative to Russia's RD-180 rocket engine and certifying "new entrants" like SpaceX likely will be the key topics.
The committee's official announcement today does not list the industry witnesses, saying only that the panel is "TBA" -- to be announced. Space News ran a story this afternoon stating that SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk and United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Tory Bruno would testify, but HASC would not confirm that to SpacePolicyOnline.com and Space News reporter Mike Gruss later tweeted (@Gruss_SN) that "Musk has only been invited to testily. Not yet confirmed."
If the two did appear together, it undoubtedly would be a lively exchange. Musk and Bruno's predecessor, Michael Gass, sat next to each other as witnesses at a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing just about exactly a year ago. The hearing took place just after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and the U.S.-Russian relationship began its downward spiral. Musk used the opportunity to highlight U.S. dependence on Russia to supply RD-180 engines for ULA's Atlas V rocket, one of the two U.S. launch vehicles used to launch most national security satellites. He agreed with U.S. policy that two independent launch systems are needed in order to assure U.S. access to space -- today they are ULA's Atlas V and Delta IV -- but that his Falcon rocket should replace Atlas as the second since it is not dependent on foreign sources. Thus began a year of hearings and congressional action aimed at reducing or eliminating U.S. dependence on Russia for space launch.
Government witnesses at the March 17 hearing will represent the DOD and Air Force acquisition offices, Air Force Space Command, and the Aerospace Corporation. A committee spokesman said early this evening that they hope to have the industry panel nailed down very soon.
The hearing is at 3:30 pm ET on March 17, 2015 in 2118 Rayburn House Office Building.