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ULA Fights To Change Perceptions, Accelerates RD-180 Deliveries

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Jun-2014
Updated: 18-Jun-2014 11:09 PM

United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Michael Gass announced today that the company is initiating an advertising campaign to change misperceptions and correct misinformation as its Air Force customer fights a lawsuit filed by competitor SpaceX and controversy swirls over the future of the Russian RD-180 rocket engines it uses for the Atlas V rocket.

ULA builds and launches the nation's two major launch vehicle families -- Atlas V and Delta IV -- that are primarily used for putting national security satellites into space.  NASA and NOAA also use those rockets.  The Air Force awarded ULA a sole-source block-buy contract for 36 rocket engine cores last year.  SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the Air Force in April arguing that it should have had a chance to compete for some of those launches.

The SpaceX lawsuit was one of three topics Gass wanted to discuss with representatives of the trade press at a media roundtable this morning in ULA's Washington-area office.  Among the points he stressed were that SpaceX was not -- and is not -- a certified launch services provider for the Air Force even today and "was not a viable competitor" when the Air Force issued the Request for Proposals in March 2012.  Another key message was that ULA has more than 100 years of combined experience launching rockets -- roughly 50 years each for the Atlas and Delta, which date back to the earliest days of the Space Age -- versus newcomer SpaceX.   The national security satellites launched by ULA "save lives," Gass emphasized, and experience counts to be sure they get into orbit when needed.

SpaceX not only wants to be able to compete against ULA for Air Force launches, but founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk argues that ULA's Atlas V rocket should be discontinued entirely because it relies on Russia's RD-180 engines.  National space policy calls for the government to support two families of launch vehicles to ensure access to space in case one requires a lengthy stand-down because of a failure.  Atlas and Delta are those two rockets today.  Musk wants his all-American Falcon to replace Atlas.

The future availability of RD-180s is a hot topic in Washington right now as the House debates the FY2015 Defense Appropriations bill, which would add $220 million to the Air Force budget to begin development on a new U.S. liquid rocket engine to replace it.   Gass made clear today that despite threats from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to prohibit RD-180s from being used to launch U.S. national security satellites, it is "business as usual" with the engines' Russian manufacturer Energomash.   However, ULA decided to accelerate delivery of the RD-180 engines it already has under contract.   Five engines were due to be delivered in November, but now two will arrive in August and the remaining three in November.  The plan had been for six engines per year after that, but instead Energomash will deliver eight per year.  That means the contract will be fulfilled a year earlier and Gass expects savings because of the shorter period of performance.

Although he still has confidence in the supply of RD-180s from Russia, Gass said ULA wants to position itself for any eventuality.  Therefore it announced earlier this week that it has contracted with "multiple" U.S. companies to develop technical concepts and perform business case analyses for alternative engines.  He declined to say how many companies, who they are, or precisely how much they are being paid, but he said it was company money.  ULA expects to choose one design and supplier by the end of this year with the goal of having a new engine ready for launch in 2019.

Gass complained about widespread misperceptions and "misinformation" being spread about ULA.  Consequently, the company is launching an advertising campaign aimed at decision makers to "illuminate the contrast between ULA and SpaceX."  The nation "has made mistakes in the past," Gass said, and "it is incumbent on us to not let the nation make those same mistakes again."


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