Congress, Pentagon

Russian tensions add a sharper edge to EELV hearing

Wednesday’s hearing by the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee on “National Security Space Launch Programs” unfolded, as many expected, as a debate between United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX. ULA defended its work as the only company currently in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, noting its commitment to mission success and its efforts to lower costs to the government through a block buy of Atlas V and Delta IV rocket cores. SpaceX, seeking to gain business from the Air Force, argued that it could provide far greater cost savings through commercial contracts for its Falcon launch vehicles.

However, another factor entered in Wednesday’s debate whose prominence wouldn’t have been expected even a few weeks ago: the potential of deteriorating relations with Russia because of the crisis in the Crimea, with the potential to disrupt supplies of the Russian-manufactured RD-180 engine that powers the Atlas V’s first stage. The subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), raised the issue with ULA CEO Mike Gass, asking him to assess “the reliability of that engine being available from Russia in the immediate future.”

Gass tried to assure Durbin and the committee that the RD-180 would be available for missions for at least a couple years even if the supply of those engines was disrupted. “First and foremost, we have two years of ‘safety stock’ inventory—actually, today we have greater than that—in country, and our ability to launch any of the near-term satellites that we need to do for national security” remains in place, Gass said. He added ULA had “another product” that can launch such payloads, an oddly indirect reference to the company’s Delta IV rocket. “We are not at any risk for supporting our national needs.”

Asked by Durbin about producing the RD-180 domestically, Gass said that ULA had that capability. “We’ve done that over several years, we invested hundreds of millions of dollars to prove that we have the capability to demonstrate our ability to build that exact engine,” he said. However, he didn’t say how long it would take to actually start producing that engine, or at what cost; previous plans to domestically produce the RD-180 had long ago been set aside in favor of simply buying and stockpiling engines built in Russia.

Musk was sharply critical of ULA’s reliance on Russian engines, as well as other components manufactured outside the US, for the Atlas V, going so far to suggest that the vehicle line be cancelled. “In light of Russia’s de facto annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, and the formal severing of military ties, the Atlas V cannot possibly be described as providing assured access to space for our nation when supply of the main engine depends on President Putin’s permission,” Musk said in his opening statement.

Later, he argued that there was sufficient demand to maintain two vehicle families, but not three. “Currently ULA has the Atlas and the Delta, but those are redundant, we don’t need both of those rocket families,” he said. “I think it would make sense, for the long-term security interests of the country, to probably phase out the Atlas V, which depends on the Russian engine, and have ULA operate the Delta family and SpaceX operate the Falcon family.”

Beyond the debate about reliance on Russia (and the, at least for now, unlikely prospect of retiring the Atlas V), the hearing focused on the issue of whether competition could truly reduce costs to taxpayers while ensuring critical military payloads were launched safely. “I believe that leveraging the demand of the commercial sector is smart, but relying on commercial demand to enable national security carries huge risks, both to the rucket supplier and to its government customers,” Gass said, recalling the initial plan to maintain two separate EELV providers, Boeing and Lockheed, based on projections of commercial launch activity in the late 1990s that failed to materialize.

Musk argued that his company’s Falcon 9 could offer launches for $90 million (including about $30 million in military-specific mission assurance costs not charged to other customers), a small fraction of Atlas and Delta costs. (The Falcon 9, though, can’t launch all the payloads carried by the Atlas and Delta, something that SpaceX plans to remedy with the larger Falcon Heavy.) He said the certification process with the Air Force was going well, but was concerned that there would be fewer launches available for competition than previously planned: perhaps only one this year, versus earlier plans for five. “If our rockets are good enough for NASA, why are they not good enough for the Air Force? It doesn’t make sense,” Musk said.

While the hearing wrapped up in less than 90 minutes, the debate is far from over, even for this particular hearing. Durbin said he took the unusual step of asking Gass and Musk to submit ten questions they’d like to ask each other, with their responses to be submitted for the record. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), ranking member of the full appropriations committee, said he would also be submitting additional questions for the record at the end of the hearing.

Gass, at one point, suggested that he would be addressing for the record some comments from Musk he helt were factually incorrect. “I heard Mr. Musk use all kinds of numbers that were categorically wrong, and I’d be glad to share with the committee the right calculation,” he said, without specifying what figures he felt were in error.

45 comments to Russian tensions add a sharper edge to EELV hearing

  • Neil Shipley

    Musk is spot on. ULA is bleeding the U.S. government but then they’re in a position to do so. Until another non-aligned commercial entity is part of the mix then this will continue.
    Couple of points made that I thought were useful:
    1. Eliminate dependance on Russian engines – could and should have happened before now.
    2. Why 2 vehicle families provided by ULA. Just so as the pork flows to both LM and Boeing although that happens anyway by virtue of the alliance.
    3. SpaceX can prosper without the DoD or AF contracts and Boeing and LM can’t (in the launch business anyway) either on their own or collectively. This is a telling point.
    4. Why different standards of qualification?

  • Coastal Ron

    On the same day of the hearing, SpaceNews published the following:

    GAO: Lack of EELV Pricing Transparency Could Hamstring Launch Negotiations


    U.S. Air Force Halves Size of Competitive EELV Procurement

    From the article about the GAO report:

    The Government Accountability’s March 4 report, “The Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) Competitive Procurement,” examined the EELV contract structure and forthcoming competition for new entrants.

    “Minimal insight into contractor cost or pricing data meant DoD may have lacked sufficient knowledge to negotiate fair and reasonable launch prices,” the report said. “Coupled with uncertainties and possible instability in the launch vehicle industrial base, EELV program costs were predicted to rise at an unsustainable rate.”

    From the article about less competitively awarded launch contracts:

    The U.S. Air Force is halving the number of space launches to be competitively awarded from 2015 to 2017 due in part to anticipated production slowdowns in satellite programs, primarily the GPS 3 navigation system.

    During the hearing Musk stated that the U.S. Government could have saved $14B if they had awarded the EELV core contract to SpaceX instead. Even assuming SpaceX would fail on a scale they have yet to demonstrate, it would still be a huge savings for all of us U.S. Taxpayers. Not that I advocate substituting one monopoly for another, just good old fashioned capitalism – competition! Which is lacking in government launches at this moment.

  • There’s no logical reason why Space X can’t be competitive with the ULA in the long run as far as launching government payloads. But the ULA, Boeing, and LM have a long history of reliability. They’ve sent spacecraft practically all over the solar system.

    Space X, on the other hand, has only just started to routinely send objects into orbit. And the Falcon Heavy hasn’t even been tested yet.

    So Space X is going to have to show NASA and the DOD over the next five to ten years, that it can launch spacecraft just as reliably as the ULA.

    The ULA or the USA (United Space Alliance) should look into eventually utilizing the SLS core vehicle– without the SRBs– for Commercial Crew and DOD launches. Such a two stage LOX/LH2 vehicle could launch the CST-100 or Dream Chaser into orbit plus up to 10 tonnes of additional payload to LEO. It could also have a much larger payload fairing diameter than the Atlas V, Delta IV, and Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles. It could also be potentially simpler and cheaper to launch than the ULA’s Delta IV heavy and would already be man-rated by the early 2020’s.

    Such a LOX/LH2 vehicle could also have a much lower carbon footprint than the Atlas V or Falcon 9 or Falcon heavy vehicles– especially if it uses hydrogen and oxygen derived from off-peak nuclear electricity instead of hydrogen from natural gas. This is especially important to Florida which is probably the most vulnerable State in the US to carbon dioxide related global sea rise.


    • Lars

      A “feature” of SLS is that you CANNOT launch it without the boosters. It can’t lift off the pad without them.

    • Neil Shipley

      Logic simply isn’t your strong suite, is it? Let’s look at your comments.
      1. SpaceX only needs to fly 3 consecutive successful launches to qualify for certification and they’ve done that. Years of reliability are NOT a requirement.
      2. SpaceX is currently working through the other processes and in the hearing stated that they had not encountered any issues so far having provided over 30,000 pieces of data and that they expected to complete certification requirements this year.
      3. The U.S. taxpayer is not paying a dime for the development of FH or any other R&D that SpaceX is undertaking other than through margins on normal contracted missions.
      4. FH hasn’t been tested yet, but then again neither has SLS. I’d lay money on FH making it well before SLS. In addition, FH is based on the existing F9 vehicle with same engines, avionics, etc. so there is considerable flight history for the vehicle sub-systems.
      5. The existing commercial rockets are more easily human-rated and more cost-effective than SLS ever will be.
      6. There is no requirement for payloads the size of SLS and still no funded missions. Not even a glimmer of one.

      And finally, have you heard of Raptor. If you’re worried about lack of payload capability, fear not, all is not lost as it would appear. Modelling by informed posters on NSF in public and L2 indicate that a Raptor-powered F9 equivalent could lift more than an SLS Block 1 and conceivably more than a Block 2 variant.

      Why not admit that you’re simply trying to find a use for your monster rocket – and there isn’t one.


      • Neil Shipley

        Sorry. Last sentence should read: Why not admit that you’re simply trying to find a use for your monster rocket – and there isn’t one, other than providing jobs and keeping the old space industrial complex going.

    • amightywind

      Such a LOX/LH2 vehicle could also have a much lower carbon footprint than the Atlas V or Falcon 9 or Falcon heavy vehicles

      There are many reasons to use LOX/LH2. Lowering the carbon footprint has to be the nuttiest. I like solid motors. The exhaust plays with sunlight to create interesting visual effects.

  • Fred Willett

    Personally I think ULA ought to be congratulated for finding a way to compete with SpaceX’s much lower prices. Simply lock the DoD into a long term bulk buy.
    Does it lock SpaceX out of the market? Yes.
    Is it against the national interest? Yes.
    Does it prevent fair and open competition? Yes.
    Do ULA care? No.

  • Fred Willett

    Given that SpaceX was on the verge of completing 3 qualification flights for DoD approval – flights they have now completed – the minimum the DoD should have done was to allow competition for everything SpaceX can compete for with Falcon 9.
    Everything else – Larger Atlas Vs and Delta IV’s only in the block buy.
    That way DoD would have got the maximum value out of competition and the maximum block discount out of the block buy on the rest.
    As it is ULA have effectively stacked the deck against SpaceX.

    • Neil Shipley

      Yes Fred. That would be appropriate. Particularly since SpaceX wasn’t permitted to compete until they had a vehicle that could do so in the F9v1.1.
      The block buy as it stands, is as good as a another subsidy.

    • Michael Kent

      “the minimum the DoD should have done was to allow competition for everything SpaceX can compete for with Falcon 9.”

      The Air Force claims to have done that. They claim that that is how they arrived at the 14 competitive missions, reserving only 28 for ULA. SpaceX can’t perform those 28 missions for various reasons (payload mass, vertical integration, direct injection into GEO, etc.)

      It’s worth noting that while 28 missions is about nine years’ worth at the rate SpaceX is currently launching, it’s only 2-1/2 years for ULA. It’s really a non-issue.

      • Coastal Ron

        Michael Kent said:

        It’s worth noting that while 28 missions is about nine years’ worth at the rate SpaceX is currently launching…

        If you’re only looking at their launch history, maybe that would be true. But they are in the middle of a ramp up, and their VP of Sales and Bizdev was just quoted as saying that they plan to launch 9 more Falcon 9 this year. Their plan has been to get up to at least 12 launches per year, or about the same as ULA.

        And both Musk and Shotwell have also been quoted recently as saying that by the end of this year (2014) that their factory will be capable of producing 40 cores and 400 engines per year. With two launch sites available today (VAFB and CCAFS), and two more being planned (LC-39A and Brownsville), they could easily do more than 12 launches per year soon.

        • Vladislaw

          Of course you heard this same chorus when Lockheed wasn’t launching 12 times right out of the box with the Atlas V and no one said a word when the Delta IV wasn’t launching 12 times a year right out of the blocks .. of course those same people think SpaceX should be launching 50 times a year and also have to provide more than Those did…

          I do not recall did Lockheed and Boeing have the requirement that they had to launch three times FIRST to be qualified?

          • Michael Kent

            “I do not recall did Lockheed and Boeing have the requirement that they had to launch three times FIRST to be qualified?”

            Boeing had launched 100 Delta IIs successfully by the time of the first Delta IV launch. Even then that first launch was a commercial launch, not a gov’t launch.

            Likewise Lockheed had launched 58 Atlas IIs and IIIs by the time of the first Atlas V launch, and the first five Atlas Vs were commercial launches.

            Counting gov’t-launched vehicles, there were 529 successful pre-EELV Delta/Thor orbital launches and 284 successful pre-EELV Atlas orbital launches. There were an additional 277 successful sub-orbital launches of Thor & Atlas. That’s over 1000 successful launches among them.

            Delta & Atlas are seasoned veterans while Falcon is a newbie. A newbie with great promise but still a newbie. Air Force policy accounts for that.

  • amightywind

    Well, at least you are all admitting relying on the Russians is a major problem. I’ve only been saying so for 20 years.

    The Air Force cannot be impressed at the technological backwardness of the F9 Merlin. SpaceX has yet to fly anything approaching the complex profiles or large payloads of the Atlas V and Delta IV. They have only launched some small com satellites. The RD-180 is a problem. Time to build it domestically once and for all.

    • Coastal Ron

      amightywind said:

      The Air Force cannot be impressed at the technological backwardness of the F9 Merlin.

      Kind of like the technological backwardness of the truck you drive – 1800’s technology, right?

      The Merlin 1D has a 150:1 thrust-to-weight ratio, which is the highest ever achieved for a rocket engine. If that was so easy to do, why isn’t everyone beating that number?

    • Michael Kent

      “The Air Force cannot be impressed at the technological backwardness of the F9 Merlin.

      Who cares how technologically advanced or not the engine is? Only three things matter.

      1) Reliability (does the payload get where it needs to go)
      2) Dispatch reliability (does it get there on time)
      3) Cost

      If those three things are met, nobody gives a hoot about the engine technology.

      BTW, SpaceX wins on #3, loses on #2, and #1 is unproven.

      • Neil Shipley

        My take on this. SpaceX:
        Wins on 3 – agreed
        Loses (so far) on 2 but ULA and pretty much every launcher in the business have had delays so this is not specific to SpaceX. ULA most recently had an issue with an engine that delayed a launch by at least 3 months.
        Wins on 1.
        Why do you consider 1 unproven?
        Will be interesting to see SpaceX record this year on 2.

      • Coastal Ron

        Michael Kent said:

        BTW, SpaceX wins on #3, loses on #2, and #1 is unproven.

        Why do you say loses on #2? Are you saying that ULA has never missed a launch date?

        I think you need to show us how you determine that, since there are payload caused delays, and customer delays that have affected SpaceX, not just Falcon 9 issues.

        And considering the life span of a satellite, I’m not sure a one day, one week, or even one month delay is even a cause for concern.

        • Michael Kent

          “Why do you say loses on #2?”

          SpaceX was years late on the Cassiope, SES-8, and CRS launches, dwarfing any recent delay by ULA.

          “Why do you consider 1 unproven?”

          Because they’ve only launched their Falcon family 13 times with only 10 successes. In comparison, Delta/Thor/Atlas have had over 1000 successful flights among them.

          Running the numbers, the predicted (Bayesian) reliability rate for the active SpaceX & ULA launch vehicles is:

          .900 Falcon 9
          .962 Delta IV
          .977 Atlas V
          .987 Delta II

          Falcon 9 has a looooong way to go to match the latest ULA vehicles in that category.

          Look, SpaceX shows great promise for the future, but its actual accomplishments to date pale in comparison to ULA’s and its predecessor companies. When the gov’t has to launch a payload costing as much as a new aircraft carrier, they’re going to take that into account. As they should.

    • Vladislaw

      When President Obama proposed this very same thing, a domestic engine to replace the russian engine you were advocating against that policy…

  • James

    Musk: “If our rockets are good enough for NASA, why are they not good enough for the Air Force? It doesn’t make sense,”

    Because ULA is pouring money into the coffers of politicians who benefit from Dod staying the present course.

    Democracy and capitalism at work!

    • josh

      you mean oligarchy and corporatism…

      • Gary Warburton

        It is good to see there is someone that understands the reality of the system we live under. Looking at Mr. Musk`s fight to bring down the costs of space travel through innovation and new ideas, it becomes apparent that the whole system is not as it appears to be and is rotten to the core. We are not that far from the society depicted in Ken Follet`s “Pillars of the Earth” where favored elites decide what is to happen. We need stock exchanges that are based on innovation and new ideas not money.

  • “I think it would make sense, for the long-term security interests of the country, to probably phase out the Atlas V, which depends on the Russian engine, and have ULA operate the Delta family and SpaceX operate the Falcon family.”

    I fully agree. I’ve never understood the preference for Atlas-V and its Russian engines when both EELVs have proven extremely reliable. Rocket engines are and have been an American skill. Why are we exporting this industry?

    Niel Shipley: 3. The U.S. taxpayer is not paying a dime for the development of FH or any other R&D that SpaceX is undertaking other than through margins on normal contracted missions.

    While I agree with your position, this overstates the case. SpaceX gets plenty of subsidies for its rockets – although they are dwarfed by what ULA gets.

    — Donald

    • Neil Shipley

      I’m sorry Donald but I missed where those subsidies are being paid out. Could you enlighten me please?

      • Vladislaw

        Ariane space made that complaint also …

        “European launch services provider Arianespace says it delivers cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) for less than NASA is currently paying Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corp. under a pair of Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts worth a combined $3.5 billion.

        Clay Mowry, president of Arianespace’s U.S. division, says the European Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket and Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) — both of which are built by Airbus Defence and Space — have launched more than 24,000 kg of food, supplies, fuel and water to the ISS with four ATV missions at a cost of roughly $460 million each, or $76,500 per kilogram.

        “That’s more cargo than SpaceX’s entire 12-flight resupply contract with NASA,” Mowry said. “We would be happy to take over their contract and lower the price per kilogram for delivering cargo to the ISS.” ”

      • SpaceX received early seed money from DARPA for the Falcon-1. (My speculation: without that, he may not have been able to survive the multiple early failures.)

        While SpaceX originally contemplated an entirely private effort, they have accepted COTS and CCiCAP funding from the public long before any services were available or even proven to be likely. This has paid for a substantial portion of the development of the Falcon-9 and Dragon combo. In any reasonable definition of the word, this is a substantial development subsidy.

        Anyone who has ready my writing will know that I am a strong supporter of SpaceX, COTS, CCiCAP, and private human spaceflight. But, to say that this is being done without subsidies is simply wrong.

        Vladislaw: To paraphrase Elon Musk in this week’s AvWeek, Arianespace is dreaming. They are comparing delivery to delivery-and-return — apples to oranges — a much more expensive proposition. They also get _all_ of their R&D, rather than ca. half, paid for by the public, and a direct operating subsidy of 100 million Euros a year, which SpaceX would undoubtedly love to “take over.”

        — Donald

        • Neil Shipley

          Yep, agree on F1 development. Not speculation. Elon’s on public record as stating that if Flight 4 had not been successful, then he had no more funds available.
          COTS and CCiCAP are however, programs where payment is/was made for development of capabilities required by NASA. The companies didn’t get paid unless they performed and met previously agreed milestones on the way to the operational capability requested by NASA. Subsidies are an entirely different payment mechanism. I’m surprised that you don’t know the difference and in this situation, you are not being accurate in your description of said payments.

  • vulture4

    The Atlas is built by Lockheed, and Lockheed is the controlling partner in ULA. Partly because of the Russian engines it is somewhat cheaper to launch than the Delta.

  • vulture4

    The Atlas is built by Lockheed, and Lockheed is the controlling partner in ULA. Partly because of the Russian engine it is somewhat cheaper to launch than the Delta.

  • Beacon

    Coastal Ron, if you believe that a one month launch delay is not a big deal, you know nothing about the rocket business. It costs more to keep a bird on the ground (storage and lost utility, ~$1 mil a month) than it does to operate it on orbit. There is a big difference between rocket science and rocket business. Satellite providers do not like launch delays.

    An article you folks might find interesting…

    • Neil Shipley

      I beg to differ. The customer is entirely concerned with ensuring that their bird gets safely to orbit. Customers won’t like it naturally, but if a delay to ensure that this happens is required, they generally won’t arc up.

    • Neil Shipley

      Yes interesting. So were the 3 comments attached to the article which I guess you didn’t read.

      The certification requirements are 3 successful consecutive launches plus a bunch of paperwork and process verification. SpaceX has achieved the 3 flights (although only 1 certified as yet; other 2 perfect so no reason for not assuming they will be as well) and is well on the way to meeting the rest.

      Shelton, although talking up the benefits of competition, has yet to embrace those words with actions. However, continuing budget reductions and the impacts of slipping their flights will result in reduced capability which they will only be able to sustain. Eventually they’re going to have to get price reductions one way or the other. In the meantime, SpaceX, unlike ULA, continues to increase their capability and drive toward further cost/price reductions.

  • That was some of the best Capitol Hill testimony I’ve watched in a long time!

    ULA still doesn’t seem to recognize the need to be competitive or least present themselves as competitive.

  • vulture4

    Re the Florida Today article,
    General Shelton doesn’t mention that the military is dependent on Russia for engines for its workhorse Atlas, or that having _both_ SpaceX and ULA on call could only provide greater flexibility then having only one. The Falcon will soon be considered safe enough to entrust the lives of astronauts, does he claim they are more expendable than military hardware, which is always launched in multiples anyway? I suspect there is some sort of “old boy network” at work here. Look for the general to pick up a cushy contractor job when he retires.

    • Neil Shipley

      Hell yeah! Astronauts aren’t worth anywhere near the value of military satellites. There’s lots of astronauts looking for ‘work’ whereas military satellites take years of design and development and cost many hundreds of millions of dollars generally. It also seems that the often have specific and highly valuable capabilities, something that generally doesn’t apply to astronauts.

    • Michael Kent

      “Look for the general to pick up a cushy contractor job when he retires.”

      Sheesh, people, get a grip. William Shelton is a SpaceX fan: “I don’t doubt that guy [Elon Musk] anymore, by the way. What he says, he’s going to do.”

      Just because he doesn’t award SpaceX contracts to do things they can’t do doesn’t mean he’s in the pay of their competition.

  • Curtis Quick

    If reliability is the issue, surely it is more reliable to depend on more than one provider for launch services. That way when one provider has an accident the other can pick up the slack. With only one provider, there would be an unacceptably long downtime after such an accident to understand what went wrong, to fix the problem, and to test the fix. During this downtime those defense dept. assets would just sit on the ground unlaunched. US defense department would certainly increase the likelihood of getting their assets launched into orbit if they worked with both ULA and SpaceX.

  • Beacon

    Neil Shipley, comments by random, uninformed, Elon fan boys have little bearing on the reality of the situation. Statements by the General currently in charge of AF Space Command certainly do. There’s a big difference between sending ice cream to astronauts and putting multi-$100 mil national assets into space. Shelton was merely stating that distinction, thank goodness Michael Kent gets the picture. However, that picture will likely soon change. SpaceX will work their way into higher class payloads (perhaps the highest class, humans), as the USAF and Govt in general are bending over backwards to get them involved in the rocket business.

    Again, I use the term rocket business. Waiting around for a month for the launch vehicle to “ensure the bird gets safely to orbit” is for rocket science. SV providers in the rocket business would certainly “arc up”. That is a concrete fact only denied by random, uninformed, Elon fan boys.

  • Beacon

    Nobody said there weren’t, aren’t, and won’t be slips mint

  • Beacon

    I didn’t say there weren’t, aren’t, and won’t be slips in the rocket business, Mader. What I am saying is that customers aren’t ambivalent about those delays.

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