SpaceX, ULA spar over military sat launch competition

SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket

An artist’s rendering of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

Rival rocketeers vying for future contracts to launch Air Force satellites sparred again this week before a House Armed Services Committee panel considering assured access to space.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, filed a protest last year challenging the Air Force's award of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) contract to United Launch Alliance (ULA), a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture. 

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., chairman of the House Armed Services strategic force subcommittee, said the Air Force has so far spent nearly $60 million to certify SpaceX for the EELV program. Rogers said the he expects the Air Force to certify SpaceX "in the months ahead" so the company can compete with ULA to launch military satellites.

In filing its protest, SpaceX stressed it was not seeking to undo the long-term contract under which ULA would provide the military with 36 rockets cores. Rather, the rival said, "We are simply seeking the right to compete." With its certification pending, SpaceX in January dropped its lawsuit challenging the exclusivity of the Air Force’s deal with ULA.

The debate widened last year with the disruption of supplies of Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines used to power ULA's Atlas family of launchers. ULA and partner Blue Origin launched an effort to replace the RD-180, but the rocket engine development effort based on the Blue Origin BE-4 engine may not meet a congressional deadline of 2019.

DOD budget guidance specified a "reasonable transition" period for developing a new U.S. engine, Rogers said, while conceding, "This will take time." The intent of the congressional guidance was to allow ULA to use Russian engines already under contract while a new U.S. engine was under development.

"My understanding is that the Department of Defense may not be interpreting [the committee's guidance] the same way," Rogers added.

ULA CEO Tory Bruno told the panel the Blue Origin BE-4 engine offers "the most expeditious track to an American engine replacement" for the RD-180. The BE-4 is a liquid oxygen/liquid natural gas (methane) engine would nevertheless require substantial changes in the rocket fuel infrastructure needed to support the new design.

Acknowledging the technical challenges of rocket engine development, Bruno revealed a "backup plan" during the hearing for a new U.S. rocket engine: ULA has entered into an partnership with Aerojet Rocketdyne for development of the AR-1 engine that uses conventional kerosene-based fuel.

Bruno testified that ULA would continue development of both engines until selecting one in order to fulfill its current EELV contract with the Air Force. The ULA chief said he expects to select an engine in the "about 2016-2017 timeframe."

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said she expects the company's Falcon 9 launcher to be certified by the Air Force for EELV missions by June. The company plans to launch a new version of the launcher, the Falcon Heavy this year, she added. SpaceX bills the new launcher as the world's most powerful rocket, capable of launching more than twice as much payload to low-Earth orbit as the space shuttle's 53,790 pounds.

Shotwell urged lawmakers to pursue of policy of "assured access [to space] through genuine competition between multiple, qualified providers with redundant, truly dissimilar launch vehicle systems."

SpaceX cited Government Accountability Office estimates that ULA is charging the Air Force as much as $400 million per mission. Shotwell estimated that Falcon Heavy launches would cost on the order of $150 million to $160 million per flight. "I don't know how to build a $400 million rocket," said Shotwell, taking a shot at ULA.

Bruno denied the $400 million estimate, noting the ULA has a fleet of Delta and Atlas rockets available to launch military satellites "unlike other providers [like SpaceX] that fly essentially one bird." With an Air Force EELV contract to supply 36 rocket cores, Bruno estimated the price per launch at $225 million, which he said is a 30 percent cost reduction.

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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