Congress, Pentagon

Senators debate RD-180 replacement, EELV competition

A hearing several days ago held jointly by subcommittees of the Senate Commerce Committee and Senate Armed Services Committee on space access issues covered two of the key issues facing that topic in recent months: developing a domestic replacement for the RD-180 and competition for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) missions. However, members showed little consensus on how to deal with either issue.

“It’s time for us to rise to the occasion and fix this situation,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) during a line of questioning about use on the Russian-built RD-180 engine and proposals to develop an American replacement. “That’s just not acceptable,” he said of the current reliance on the RD-180.

During the hearing, Defense Department witnesses, including Air Force Space Commander head Gen. William Shelton and Alan F. Estevez, principal under secretary of defense for acquisition, reiterated previous estimates of the time and cost of building an RD-180 replacement: five to eight years, and one to two billion dollars. That timeline, at least, didn’t make Sessions happy. “Well, that’s not acceptable,” Sessions said when Estevez gave the schedule estimate. “Why don’t we get busy and get this done and not drag it out?”

Other senators, though, were less impatient. “This strikes me as a low-risk, high-consequence kind of situation,” said Sen. Angus King (I-ME) of the possibility of Russia cutting off RD-180 exports.

“There’s no indication that we’d be cut off today,” Estevez responded. “There’s a good rationale for why we would move down the path to develop our own engine. However, while we’re doing that, use of the RD-180 engine is a cost-effective and proven way to launch our national security payloads.”

“It is also fairly clear that Roscosmos certainly doesn’t want to give up that income stream, and it looks like that, from their standpoint, they clearly want to continue to supply the RD-180,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said. In general, though, committee members appeared to support the idea of funding the start of development work on an RD-180 replacement, although there’s no consensus on how much to spend in fiscal year 2015: proposals have ranged from $25 million in a Senate defense appropriations bill approved by the appropriations committee last week to $220 million in the House defense appropriations and authorization bills.

Senators also used the hearing to discuss competition in the EELV program, including the “block buy” contract awarded to United Launch Alliance and SpaceX’s protest of that award. That block buy, said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), “may have made economic sense during the global environment at that time, and resulted in meaningful savings to the American taxpayer, $4.4 billion. Although well-intentioned, the unintended consequences of relying on a foreign supplier for critical national security equipment is now striking apparent.”

Cruz stopped short of calling for the block buy contract to be altered or cancelled, although later in the hearing he asked Shelton how long it would take to certify SpaceX’s Falcon 9 if the Air Force moved at “maximum speed.” Shelton noted that if everything goes “extremely well” that SpaceX will be certified by late this year, although the Falcon 9 v1.1 cannot handle launches that would be assigned to seven of ten existing Atlas V configurations. Shelton also said that the Air Force will spend between $60 and 100 million on that certification process.

SpaceX’s dispute with the Air Force provided fireworks late in the hearing, when Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who left after opening statements and returned near the end of the two-hour hearing, fired off a line of questions to Shelton. He brought up a comment Shelton made in May about the SpaceX suit: “Generally, the person you want do business with, you don’t sue them.”

“Do you stand by that statement?” McCain asked. When Shelton said he did, McCain then asked about a ULA suit against the Air Force about recovering costs. “If some company or corporation thinks they are not being fairly treated, you don’t think they should be able to sue? I mean, that’s not our system of government, Gen. Shelton. I don’t really get your statement except that it shows real bias against the ability of any company or corporation in America to do what they think is best for their company or corporation.”

McCain appeared to liken the EELV block buy contract to the Air Force tanker contract scandal of the early 2000s. “People went to jail. People were fired,” he recalled of that controversy. “I don’t like this deal,” he said of the block buy EELV contract, complaining that only a handful of launches would be available for competition.

77 comments to Senators debate RD-180 replacement, EELV competition

  • Fred Willett

    On the face of it a RD-180 replacement seems a logical decision. The RD-180 has been threatened and thus is shown to be a weakness in US launch capabilities and ought to be replaced by a domestic alternative.
    But we are in a period of rapid change in the launch industry. SpaceX stands on the brink of achieving reusability. Within the next 2 years reusability will be shown to work – or not.
    If reusability does work then the Atlas V as now built is likely to become obsolete as LV manufacturers rush to design vehicles that can compete in a reusable market space.
    An Rd-180 replacement by then in the middle of development work might be exactly the wrong engine at the wrong time. There could easily be $Billions spent for nothing.
    SpaceX already has a large lead. The wise move might be to spend a few months to a year doing design studies on possible replacements for Atlas and Delta rockets and work out what they might actually need.

  • Dark Blue Nine

    This hearing missed the MH17 shoot down over Ukraine and the unrelated new round of sanctions on Russia — including some on Russian aerospace centers — by one day. This would (or should) have been a very different hearing if it had been held a day or two later. I hope Estevez and Shelton won’t be making statements like “There’s no indication that we’d be cut off today [from the RD-180]” post-MH17 and the new sanctions. At the rate that the geopolitics are unraveling around Ukraine, we’re going to cut ourselves off from the RD-180 before the Russians do.

    • Jim Nobles

      Assuming RD-180 availability goes to naught what options are CST-100 and Dream Chaser left with? I don’t see much.

      • Fred Willett

        Both can fly on F9.
        Delta IV can be human rated.

        • Neil

          DIV will be too expensive for CC if I’m not mistaken. It’s already pricey compared with the AV but that would mean a single lv for all CC vehicles. No redundancy. Not a great situation to be in and no quick fix that I can see.
          Cheers

          • vulture4

            From an engineering standpoint the Delta IV could certainly carry any of the Commercial Crew vehicles. The problem is administrative. The second stage, designed to a static load factor of 1.25, does not meet the NASA requirement for 1.4 for human spaceflight. Of course in reality the safety factor was applied back in the days when computers were far less capable and the Shuttle had to fly with a crew on its first launch.

      • Mopane

        If the RD-180 is not forthcoming, Dream Chaser are Atlas will be out of the running.

        They might technically be capable of using Falcon, but Falcon is not a public resource that can be freely used by anyone. Falcon is owned by a private company who can legally restrict sales to rivals.

        This is a big contract, 700, 800 million. There’s no good reason for SpaceX to risk that by offering Falcon to the others. Especially not when SpaceX will win the contract by refusing to sell.

        • vulture4

          I don’t think SpaceX would operate that way. They would prefer to sell more launch vehicles. They are confident NASA will continue to use Dragon in one form or another.

          • Jim Nobles

            Yeah, I agree. SpaceX is trying to get enough money together to invade Mars. I think they’ll look at any potential business from that point of view.

          • Mopane

            If two or more vendors were going to emerge from the next phase, you might be right. All indications are the next phase is going to eliminate two of the three bidders. All of the money will go to a single company.

            This next phase alone will give the sole winner 700 to 800 million. After that will follow many years of lucrative crew launches.

            If SpaceX were to sell launches to rivals before the contract is awarded, SpaceX could be endangering billions of dollars in payments. Even if they provided the launches, they’d still lose all the money they’re using to develop Drago.

            In this case, SpaceX can’t be the good guy and the smart guy at the same time. They have to take a side. After they win, they’ll offer to sell Dream Chaser some launches, but SpaceX won’t endanger billions in payments for some good PR.

            The truth of what I’m saying is evident. NASA’s commercial crew decision is due in about a month. Atlas is all but cancelled. The engines aren’t going to ship.

            There hasn’t been a peep from SpaceX, Sierra, or Boeing about sales of Falcon launches. Those sales would have to be approved by SpaceX before NASA approves the next phase. Sierra and Boeing’s bids would be deficient without a launch vehicle and they don’t have a launch vehicle.

            SpaceX should not feel guilty for refusing sales to Boeing. Boeing attacks SpaceX at every opportunity. The mess Boeing’s in is their own fault, and no one else’s.

            Unless the Russian situation does a 180 in the next few weeks, Commercial crew is decided. SpaceX has won.

            • Jim Nobles

              Unless the Russian situation does a 180 in the next few weeks, Commercial crew is decided. SpaceX has won.

              I believe SpaceX is going to be the winner(or the main winner if there is more than one) regardless of the political situation with RD-180 and the Atlas V.

              I think that unless and until Putin or someone else with authority sends an actual letter stating shipments have been cancelled or will be restricted to certified nonmilitary payloads the people in Government and the military and ULA will carry on acting as if the supply will not be a problem in the near future. In other words, unless Russia officially kills or hinders RD-180 deliveries before commercial crew is decided then commercial crew will be decided based upon the premise that the Atlas V will be available as a launcher.

              Do I think that is the smart decision? No, but I think that’s what will happen.

              But, I repeat, I think SpaceX is a winner anyway. CST-100 can’t win based on the merits of their system. It’s too retro and I don’t think their political hired help has the muscle to force it through as the winner if there is only one winner. Dream Chaser looks good but is just too far out to win this thing.

              Just my opinion.

              • Dick Eagleson

                Entirely agree about the delusional denial of geopolitical reality by ULA and its school of pilot fish. To inflict maximum damage, therefore, I expect Putin to keep things as ambiguous as possible for as long as possible. If no more engines arrive in this calendar year, though, I think even ULA will figure out that it’s “game over” and time to, belatedly, figure out what their next move should be. Based on past moves, it is almost certain to be something that relies on purchased political influence, to be dumb and to be a failure. The one thing I think we can safely assume it won’t be is development, on their own dime, of a new vehicle and engine.

          • Neil

            Slight correction. SpaceX will be happy to sell launch services. They won’t sell their actual vehicles IMHO.
            Cheers

          • Dick Eagleson

            First, kudos to Mopane for continuing to try talking sense to Listener, Esq. the last few days about the RD-180 situation. Probably pointless, as have been my own efforts along these lines to-date, but good on ya for stepping up and making the effort anyway.

            But I have to go with Vultch on the issue of other CCDev vehicles getting rides on Falcon 9′s. I think SpaceX would be delighted to launch its CCDev rivals’ vehicles to ISS. That way, SpaceX gets a significant chunk of change from every CC mission to ISS, at least during the probablr duration of initial contracts. It also gets to keep its Falcon 9 core production rate high, reducing variable costs and improving quality while also amortizing its production infrastructure costs over more units more quickly than would otherwise be the case for a lower fixed cost share per unit, thus improving margins.

            Nor do I see SpaceX charging prohibitively for such launches. I’m guessing Boeing – assuming they aren’t dropped from CCDev or bail out on their own before completion – and SNC can get all the CST-100 and Dreamchaser rides they want for the same posted rate any other commercial payload would get. That would be, currently, $61.2 million. Both CST-100 and Dreamchaser would need some type of adapter to fit on an F9, but neither would necessarily require a payload fairing so the cost of launch ancillaries would be roughly a wash.

            There has been some speculation that Dreamchaser might not be launchable on an F9 because of its mass – roughly 50% more than a cargo Dragon weighs. But Dreamchaser was supposed to launch on an Atlas V with the never-before-used twin-RL-10 version of the Centaur upper stage. As none of the models or artists concepts I’ve seen of the Dreamchaser launch stack show solid strap-on boosters on the Atlas V core, I deduce that the Atlas V in question is a 402 model. The F9v1.1 first stage has more thrust than an unaugmented Atlas V first stage. The F9 second stage has lower Isp than the Centaur, but even a twin-engined version only has about 50,000 lbs. of thrust versus 180,000 lbs. for the Merlin 1-D vacuum engine. The Dreamchaser would seem to be within the F9′s lift capability envelope.

            Now back to cost issues. Given Falcon 9′s much lower price compared to Atlas V, the other CCDev competitors might even have an economic incentive to prefer Falcon 9 to any other feasible booster – Ariane 5 for example. I suspect that NASA will not compete CC missions to ISS piecemeal on a simple lowest bidder basis. Instead they are likely to do what they did with CRS; award contracts for multiple missions to each competitor at a fixed total price. The lowest-price competitor will get the largest number of guaranteed missions and the more expensive competitors will get fewer, but every competitor will get some. As launching on a Falcon 9 will lower the total mission costs of any non-SpaceX CC vehicle compared to other extant boosters, this would seem a way for any non-SpaceX CC provider to pick up an extra mission or two on its initial CC contract.

            NASA still makes out by doing this because it preserves a competitive market for CC services while still getting a better deal, even from its most expensive provider, than any government-sourced alternative could provide. On CRS missions, for example, Orbital is, for now, nearly $100 million more expensive, per mission, than SpaceX but is still cheaper than the Japanese HTV or ESA ATV.

            As I’ve noted on these threads before, though, the recent announcement by Bigelow of intent to begin on-orbit operations of it first twin-BA330 LEO station by 2017 is likely to provide a vastly expanded market for CC-type services and also impel SpaceX’s initial CC competitors to develop their own booster vehicles. This expanded CC market may even attract players not currently in the CCDev program.

            • Michael J. Listner

              First, kudos to Mopane for continuing to try talking sense to Listener, Esq. the last few days about the RD-180 situation. Probably pointless, as have been my own efforts along these lines to-date, but good on ya for stepping up and making the effort anyway.

              Oh good grief, why don’t you all just fall on your swords. While you’re at it, in the future show some courtesy and spell my last name correctly.

              • Dick Eagleson

                Sorry about the typo, Lawyer Mike.

                As to the sword thing, that’s for people who have backed the wrong horse and failed. Under Japanese rules, one of us ought to be called upon to commit honorable seppuku, but it’s too early to tell who yet. I like my chances.

  • Ben Russell-Gough

    Irrespective of RD-180 availability, I think it is sensible to fund a US-indigenous replacement. This scare should be seen as a warning shot, warning that that outsourcing national security-critical items is storing up trouble for the future.

    • Balty Snardgrass

      This entire discussion is ridiculous, we have the Falcons and Merlin 1Ds from SpaceX, possibly an MCT BRF with a very powerful methane fueled Raptor in the very near future, The Delta IVs and the RS-68 RIGHT NOW, Jeff Bezos has a very cluster capable 100K hydrogen engine, Aerojet Rocketdyne wants to build a souped up AJ-26 variant called the AR-1 that would be supremely cluster capable, and of course we have a dozen or so SSMEs and certainly we could build more of those if somebody actually got around to designing a realist reusable vehicle around them. What more do you guys want? This is just nuts. And I’m even sure I’ve missed a few other reasonable options.

      And entirely expected, of course, given the intellectual capacity of the discussion that was recently held before congress.

      • Ben Russell-Gough

        If we have Raptor in a flight-ready status in less than five or six years, I’ll be shocked. In any case, it’s always good to have alternatives and an Aerojet/PWR hydrocarbon engine thus makes good sense.

        SSME would take several years to restart production, if that is even possible. In any case, it is an expensive and complex engine, wholly unsuited for use on an expendable LV. As for Delta-IV, it is more or less well known that Delta-IV is expensive and ULA cannot be easily (or cheaply) accelerate production to cover any Atlas-V unavailability.

        One way or another, it’s going to be years to have an RD-180 and/or Atlas-V replacement available. It’s best to start now and to have multiple options available in case one or more providers over-promise or are unduly optimistic regarding schedule (Elon, I’m looking at you).

        • Balty Snardgrass

          In any case, it is an expensive and complex engine, wholly unsuited for use on an expendable LV.

          Indeed it is, which is why YOUR government is doing precisely that. If you are still thinking in terms of expendable launch vehicles, then I have nothing to say.

          I’d love to hear how your launch vehicle is coming along. Yes, I’m looking at you.

          • Ben Russell-Gough

            Not my government, I’m afraid. I don’t actually have a launch vehicle of my own (except, I suppose, Vega, Ariane-5 and -6).

        • Fred Willett

          I think Mr Musk would like Raptor ASAP.
          To get full reusability he needs a larger methane powered upper stage. I think that’s the first use for Raptor.

          • Dick Eagleson

            A Raptor-powered 2nd stage for F9 would be massive overkill. One Raptor 2nd stage engine would have nearly the same total thrust as all nine Merlin 1-D’s on the 1st stage. Not a well-optimized design.

            For Falcon Heavy, though, it could make sense. There would appear to be two relatively low-cost and straightforward routes to improving the throw weight of FH:

            1) A new 2nd stage that sticks to LOX-Kerosene propellant, but has stretched tankage and uses two Merlin 1-D’s rather than one.

            2) A new 2nd stage that uses LOX-Methane propellant and a single Raptor engine.

            Either of these upgrades would get FH much closer to Block I SLS lift capacity than it is currently. The first alternative would probably still fall short of SLS Block I’s 70 tonnes-to-LEO capability, but not by much. The second alternative might well exceed 70 tonnes, but probably wouldn’t get all the way to 93 tonnes, which is the LEO lift capability of the SLS Block I with the quad-RL-10 upper stage, but, again, it would probably get close.

            Of course, either – or even both – of these upgrades could be available years sooner and at tiny fractions of the cost of equivalent SLS configurations.

            As the SLS has no real missions and payloads in the offing, upgrading FH to compete with a paper rocket that will, in all likelihood, have been long-since canceled by the time either FH variant is on-line may seem pointless. In terms of direct competition for government-designed payloads – of which there are none – that would be correct.

            But Mr. Bigelow has that BA2100/Olympus module design that is alleged to mass somewhere in the 70 – 90 tonnes range. He’s going to want to put one of more of these up at some point, probably as upgrades/add-ons to existing BA330-based LEO stations and, eventually, for other purposes. He’ll need an affordable launcher to loft them and a Mk2 FH would appear to be just the ticket.

      • Michael J. Listner

        This entire discussion is ridiculous, we have the Falcons and Merlin 1Ds from SpaceX…

        No, it is not. Once certified, Falcon 9s will not be able to handle the full suite of national security payloads. Everything else you mention with the exception of the Delta IV is years down the road if ever. The dark horse is Orbital Sciences. Their recent merger with ATK opens some interesting possibilities and they may throw their hat into the ring as well.

        And I’m even sure I’ve missed a few other reasonable options.

        There aren’t as many as you think.

        And entirely expected, of course, given the intellectual capacity of the discussion that was recently held before congress.

        Contrary to your armchair analysis, it was a good hearing and the people in the know were there and gave realistic expectations. There is a lot of brain power and experience represented there and I would be more inclined to listen to the people who actually are in the business of procuring and launching rockets instead of people who sit on the outside and shoot their mouths off.

        • Balty Snardgrass

          Everything else you mention with the exception of the Delta IV is years down the road if ever.

          And a RD-180 clone at eight years and billions of dollars put on a 20 year old expendable launcher design isn’t? Carry on, I don’t have time for your delusions.

          • Michael J. Listner

            And if you watched the hearing and listened to the discussion, which you apparently did not, the focus was not on an RD-180 clone, and the comment was made a new engine would require a new rocket as well.

            • Balty Snardgrass

              And I already made my comment that we have plenty of old and new rockets and engines already completely capable of doing the job, and more new rockets and engines coming already. For the government to consider an entirely new engine and EXPENDABLE launch vehicle with all of these assets at their disposal, INCLUDING the Ariane V, when the existing expendable government HLV already under development is a complete farce, is just ludicrous.

              You are spewing complete nonsense and I’m embarrassed to even have to point that out to you on this forum.

              • Michael J. Listner

                Good grief.

              • Balty Snardgrass

                Even if this was a serious problem, which it is not, my confidence that you could legislate your way out of it is exactly zero.

              • Jeff appears to be busy, so could I ask that we try to be reasonably civil here? Balty, I pretty much agree with you, but see no reason to be so nasty about it.

                – Donald

              • Balty Snardgrass

                I disagree. I believe this is the time to be nasty to the same old tired lawyers and armchair policy hacks rehashing the same old tired talking points. Michael Griffin is still opening his mouth in print and Doug Cooke just published another idiotic op-ed on Huffington Post. Nasty facts are the only way to counter this kind of nonsense. History will not be on your side on this issue. And if you think I’m being nasty, you ain’t seen nasty.

              • Michael J. Listner

                Those same “old tired lawyers” know a thing or two about nasty, so you will be small fish in a pond of sharks in that department.

              • Dark Blue Nine

                “Those same ‘old tired lawyers’ know a thing or two about nasty”

                Old and tired or not, the “nasty” (or at least competent) lawyers do not appear to be working for ULA:

                “Braden denied a motion from ULA to dismiss the lawsuit… Braden said ULA ‘has no basis to challenge’ SpaceX’s standing”

                http://www.spacenews.com/article/military-space/41391judge-orders-mediation-for-spacex-us-air-force

        • Coastal Ron

          Michael J. Listner said:

          No, it is not. Once certified, Falcon 9s will not be able to handle the full suite of national security payloads. Everything else you mention with the exception of the Delta IV is years down the road if ever.

          You are right, Falcon 9 can’t handle all of the current Air Force payloads. But Falcon Heavy can, and Falcon Heavy doesn’t require any investment other than paying for certification (and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper). Plus it can be available by the time ULA runs out of RD-180 engines.

          So if Atlas V goes out of production for lack of engine, Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy can take up the slack without a problem. Problem solved.

          The dark horse is Orbital Sciences. Their recent merger with ATK opens some interesting possibilities and they may throw their hat into the ring as well.

          Unless the new Orbital Sciences with ATK can come up with a design for a launcher that is reusable, then there is no amount of synergy in their new merger that can change the dynamics that SpaceX has introduced to the launch industry. And that is because even without proving that reusability is possible or able to be used in the marketplace, SpaceX has lowered costs so much that only a reusable launcher will allow a new entrant to capture enough new business to make investing in a new launcher worthwhile.

          Even Taurus II, which I thought was an elegant solution at the time, is now perceived as just one of the newest of the old designs.

          SpaceX is poised to take, potentially, up to 50% of the current launch market, and though I don’t see that percentage changing when they perfect reusability (for a number of reasons), that changes the economics for any new entrants due to the available market and competing against the last vestiges of the old (i.e. current) design launchers. It’s purely a money thing, not technology.

        • Dick Eagleson

          Everything else you mention with the exception of the Delta IV is years down the road if ever.

          Maybe two years at the outside. It seems generally agreed that SpaceX will get EELV certification for Falcon 9 around year’s end, plus or minus maybe a month. By that time it ought to be abundantly clear that, if as I and many others here strongly suspect, ULA has received no more RD-180′s in the interim, that it will be time to rethink DoD launch requirements without much further reference to Atlas V.

          SpaceX currently plans to launch its first Falcon Heavy around mid-year 2015. I see no obvious reason why FH couldn’t have two more missions completed within six months of its first. Given that, from the time of the first of the three qualifying launches to the end of the certification process, F9 will have taken roughly 14 – 15 months, it seems likely FH will take no more than a year. This is because neither SpaceX nor the Aerospace Corp. contractors doing certification procedures will be plowing fresh ground and also because so much of the technical stuff will be duplicative between F9 and FH. Matters could well go even faster. So SpaceX will, in all likelihood – and even in the absence of any DoD override that would speed things up – have both F9 and FH EELV certified by ca. July 1, 2016 at the latest. At that point, DoD will have two completely independent rocket families, either of which can launch any payload in the DoD bestiary. Problem solved.

          The dark horse is Orbital Sciences. Their recent merger with ATK opens some interesting possibilities and they may throw their hat into the ring as well.

          Finally we agree on something. Orbital-ATK has already indicated strong interest in getting Antares – probably in its future Mk2, AJ-26-free form – EELV certified. Not sure how competitive they’ll be down the road unless they also incorporate some kind of reusability into Antares Mk2, but they seem intent on going after at least the low end of DoD’s launch business.

    • Mopane

      It would be complete waste of money for the government to fund an RD-180 replacement.

      The engine is old technology. It wouldn’t be ready for 8 years. All while the launch business is in the middle of its largest transformation in decades.

      By the time the US engine would be ready, it and its vehicle would be obsolete. Billions would have been spent for nothing. The engine probably wouldn’t be used even once. Real world developments would outstrip it so fundamentally that the program would be cancelled before the first engine reached final production.

      If the government wants a fast, modern Atlas replacement, they’d be much better funding a program in the image of the COTS ISS resupply contracts. It would have few technical requirements. Bidders would be free to select whichever launch technology they liked.

  • Michael J. Listner

    This was a good hearing and both the Senators that attended and those testifying brought to light the concerns about the RD-180. One of the more interesting revelations is that the decision to build the RD-180 domestically was not dropped as much as it was supplanted by the decision to stockpile the engines. Not a good decision, but it’s always easy to armchair quarterback policy decisions in hindsight.

    General Shelton was forthright about Space X certification efforts and the reason Space X is being put on fast-track: If a national security payload end up in the ocean because corners were cut during certification he (or his successor) would be in front of the same panel explaining why a vital payload was now at the bottom of the ocean.

    Except for Senator McCain’s awkward attempt to chastise General Shelton for his comments regarding the Space X bid protest, this was a productive hearing and everyone involved (with the exception of Senator McCain) got a good dose of reality about this issue.

  • josh

    The reality of the situation is that ula wants the taxpayer to fund development of an engine for their soon to be obsolete 100% expendable rocket. By the time they’re ready the atlas v will look like a relic from the past.
    If they want a new engine they should fund its development themselves. They won’t because they know the whole thing doesn’t make any sense.

    • Mopane

      There are real questions as to whether Delta production can be ramped up quickly enough.

      The real problem for ULA is that Delta costs a lot more. They’re certain to demand extra money if they’re forced to use Delta for all launches. That should reopen the block buy bidding to SpaceX, in which case ULA would stand to lose a majority of the business.

      The general theme of that piece is accurate. There is no large threat to US launch capability. The major threat is to the current way of doing business.

      If the engines stop, ULA’s enormous profits and the Air Force’s preferred way of doing business will come to an end.

    • Coastal Ron

      Michael J. Listner said:

      A relevant opinion piece in Space News:

      Nice historical story about the EELV program, and how it got to where it’s at today from a launcher standpoint (specifically Delta IV).

      However near the end the author states:

      The U.S. has let its rocket engine propulsion capability deteriorate by not supporting new engine development, and as a result three major rocket engine companies have now merged into one. The RS-68 is the last major, high-performance engine development and was funded by Boeing’s Delta 4 program, not the government.

      Of course he leaves out SpaceX and their Merlin engine, which also was privately funded, not government funded. And that’s part of the problem here, is that there is a certain “blindness” to solutions that aren’t coming from the incumbents.

      The solution for the Atlas V problem is to see if there are any other domestic launchers that can backfill Atlas V, and it so happens the Air Force is in the process of certifying one such launcher today – the Falcon 9. And for those that say Falcon 9 can’t handle all of the Air Force needs, the author of the article addressed that also – Atlas V never was able to satisfy all of the Air Force needs either.

      So in the near-term Falcon 9 can start taking over the low-end missions that Atlas V normally would do, which saves RD-180 engines for the missions at the top end of what Atlas V can do, and Delta IV production is increased to backfill as needed until Falcon Heavy comes online and gets certified.

      By government standards, this would be a ridiculously simple and low-cost solution. No wonder so many people are against it… ;-)

      • Egad

        “The RS-68 is the last major, high-performance engine development and was funded by Boeing’s Delta 4 program, not the government.”

        It was an interesting piece, but I’d have liked to see some discussion of the development of the still somewhat enigmatic RS-68A. I suspect that was done on government money to meet the needs of NROL-15, and it would be interesting to know how many dollars that took.

  • Mopane

    It’s time to face facts. The engines won’t be shipping.

    That means Atlas is dead. The death of Atlas could even bring down ULA. Lockheed and Boeing won’t invest billions into a new rocket. The government won’t fund a new rocket either, SpaceX has seen to that.

    The question is whether Lockheed and Boeing can earn enough money from Delta alone. When SpaceX takes all the Atlas payloads, ULA’s reason for being will evaporate.

    • vulture4

      I’m not sure why you fel the engines won’t be shipping. Why would Russia give up a good source of income?

      • Michael J. Listner

        It’s not about the engines not shipping; it is more about some on this forum not wanting the engines to ship so that Atlas V will die.

        • Mopane

          Wanting doesn’t enter the equation. It’s nothing to do with what anyone here wants, it’s all about the game the Russians are playing. They can’t ship the engines because it would weaken them.

          The denial of this is understandable, a lot of jobs are on the line. The job losses won’t be confined to ULA. Jobs will be lost at their suppliers and even some of their customers.

          It’s time to wake up and fact facts. Rockets may operate in a vacuum, but the rocket business doesn’t. These engines are of next to no economic value to the Russians, it’s 1/6000ths of their exports. Those also happen to be close to the odds these engines have of shipping, 1 in 6000.

        • Dark Blue Nine

          “It’s not about the engines not shipping; it is more about some on this forum not wanting the engines to ship so that Atlas V will die.”

          It’s about a deflagrating geopolitical situation in Eastern Ukraine where Russian-backed separatists shot down a commercial airliner using Russian Buk missiles and killed over a couple hundred innocent people from multiple nationalities.

          It’s about new sanctions that the White House slapped on Russia the day before the shoot-down of MH-17, some of which targeted Russia’s aerospace/defense design bureaus.

          Against those events, trends, and background, it’s out-of-touch to assume that RD-180s will continue shipping. Even the hidebound USAF is looking at how to ramp up Delta IV production in the wake of this worsening situation.

  • Mopane

    Because it’s not a good source of income.

    RD-180 sales bring in tens of millions of dollar each year, some years it can hit one hundred million.

    That’s not real money to the Ruskies, that’s chump change.

    The engines are a lost cause. Atlas is a lost cause. We need to accept these realities and move on.

    • Jim Nobles

      That’s not real money to the Ruskies, that’s chump change.

      Basically I agree that we need to move on from the Atlas V and we need to do it yesterday because the Russians could stop RD-180 deliveries any day just for spite. But I feel it’s most likely, unless we get into a shooting war, for the deliveries to continue since it does bring them money and they know we wouldn’t be hampered that much if they cut us off.

      But since the potential is there for them to cut us off at any time we must be prudent and plan for such a situation. Those who want us to continue on just hoping that nothing will happen to the supply chain are just begging to put us in a bad situation.

    • Michael J. Listner

      But it is hard currency and the cash-strapped Russian space program isn’t going to bite the hand that feeds it on whim.

      • Dick Eagleson

        Given Putin’s recent promises to invest huge new sums in Russian space efforts, the program is no longer so cash-strapped. You also ignore the re-Sovietization of the entire extant Russian space economy that is currently on-going. The Russian government is, in essence, re-nationalizing all the nominally independent commercial space enterprises that the old-line design bureaus became post-Soviet Union. All will be run by a single centralized government department.

        As I and many others have repeated ad infinitum, the Russian state is an expansionist autocracy. It doesn’t really give a damn about a little bit of trivial income from gullible Westerners here and there if making a point and poking a finger in the eye of said Westerners becomes a more pressing political necessity. Putin has forgone billions in energy revenues in years past by way of throwing his weight around and attempting to cow neighboring states which have foolishly become dependent upon Russian energy resources. The RD-180 is just another convenient, and cheap, club with which to cudgel a U.S. he has increasingly come to see – correctly, in my view – as weak and rudderless under Barack Obama’s ditherocracy.

        ULA will get no more engines. But Putin will not likely make any formal declaration to that effect. He’ll just keep not shipping them and see how long it takes for persons such as yourself to conclude that Godot ain’t ever showing up.

      • Dark Blue Nine

        “But it is hard currency and the cash-strapped Russian space program isn’t going to bite the hand that feeds it”

        U.S. currency isn’t the end-all, be-all consideration for the Russian leadership. If Putin & Co. need to strike back against U.S. sanctions or simply appear strong to challengers domestically, the RD-180 income stream may be traded away.

        And with the new sanctions the White House imposed on certain Russian aerospace/defense design bureaus the day _before_ MH-17 was shot down, U.S. leadership may decide it’s more important to cripple specific Russian manufacturers or send stronger messages to Russia’s leadership than avoiding the costs of transferring Atlas payloads to other launchers.

        The threats to RD-180 imports have multipled this month, not dwindled.

  • Mopane

    You say that as if the amount of money doesn’t matter. It matters. It matters because the amount is so small.

    Russia is not a poor third world sh\thole. They’re officially classified as a high income economy. They ship out over half a trillion dollars in exports every year.

    The money from these engines isn’t enough to even move that needle. It’s about 1/6000th of Russia’s exports.

    Why would Russia help the US out of a jam while the US is passing sanction after sanction and pressing all of Europe to pass sanctions? They’d ignore those sanctions to gain 1/6000ths of their export dollars?

    Sorry, what you suggest doesn’t make political sense.

    The engines aren’t shipping. Come to terms with it. Atlas is finished.

  • Mopane

    Dmitry Rogozin isn’t making the call, Vladimir Putin is.

  • E.P. Grondine

    Does anyone know where Bezos is with his engine?

  • Hey guys, I hope you all, on Space Politics, had a great First Moon Landing Day!! The 20th of July, what could also be called National Moon Day. The date in space history, that a manned expedition made it to the Lunar surface, for the very first time———and the added bonus in that it was the United States which achieved this tremendously grand feat.

    Neil Armstrong, now deceased, stands out as a gallant hero, even more, since he is the one member of that mission’s crew to speak out in favor of America returning to the Moon, and resuming the great scientific work that was begun there, over 41 years ago. Mr. Armstrong clearly understood that further astronautic activity in Low Earth Orbit was going to be woefully inadequate and very counter-productive in terms of paving the way for future interplanetary spaceflight. Neil knew that the Moon was in fact our best possible space station, in terms of uncovering any & all probable interplanetary transit problems, plus providing us an ideal test-bed for grappling with planetary surface issues.

    May the United States resume its rightful place, in the deep space arena, and resume manned Lunar exploration! The potential for future technological advancement, would be enormous, in this new Moon venture.

  • Chris Castro: May the United States resume its rightful place, in the deep space arena, and resume manned Lunar exploration!

    Unfortunately, this is not going to happen in today’s budgetary and toxic political environments. We would need to significantly raise taxes and / or significantly cut entitlements and / or make hard choices on what we’re going to spend our money on. None of those are in the cards.

    (Falling back on my archaeological background, I once had a professor argue that you know the end is near for a civilization when it can no longer make collective decisions and then act on them. If he was correct, we are clearly in trouble.)

    This is why, here and now, the COTS / CCtCap / Flexible Path strategies are the best, and probably the only, ways forward. They don’t involve making hard decisions or expensive investments.

    – Donald

  • Jim Nobles

    The more I think about this the more I realize there is no real downside to losing the RD-180 and Atlas V. No downside to America, there will be unpleasant effects experienced by those somehow invested in ULA but that’s just one company and companies go bust all the time. Lockmart could have planned for the future and invested in an engine but they chose not to so let it be so, it was their decision.

    If the Atlas V suddenly becomes nonviable the taxpayers probably get a break by having the block buy broken open and re-competed. Indications are that a re-competition could produce savings much greater than the so-called savings the block buy is advertised as giving. Especially if the taxpayers can get out from under the burden of that so-called Mission Assurance $1B a year payoff ULA has been collecting all this time.

    What a joke that Mission Assurance thing was, one tweet from a Russian official and the much vaunted “reliability” of the Atlas V evaporated in a small puff of fake smoke that it always really was.

    The RD-180 and the Atlas V can only be used to hurt America now. The sooner they go away the better.

    • Michael J. Listner

      The block buy is not going to get broken up. End of story.

      • Jim Nobles

        We will see.

      • Dick Eagleson

        Agree, as usual, with Jim Nobles.

        Look, I get that you think the only thing that matters is the doings of American courts, but that’s a sideshow. What judges and lawyers do is going to prove completely irrelevant. The thing that’s going to blow up the block buy is the lack of any further RD-180′s. Of the 36 booster cores called for in the block buy deal, at least 16 of them are supposed to be Atlas V’s according to everything I’ve been able to find on the subject. A guy I was going around with about the block buy over on another thread, and who seemed well-informed, said the block buy actually calls for 20 Atlas V cores. So at least 16 and maybe as many as 20.

        ULA, as of right now, has exactly 15 engines. Current plans are to expend three of them on as many Atlas V launches in the next 50 days. The first of these is a GPS bird due to go up on July 31. That is probably defensible given its national security launch status. It might even be part of the block buy. The next two, though, are civilian payloads. One is a commercial imaging sat and the other a science mission for NASA. That these latter two launches are being allowed to take place suggests a shocking degree of complacency and/or wishful thinking on the part of DoD, ULA, LockMart – which books the non-DoD flights of Atlas V – and everyone else who seems to imagine that renewed Russian aggression will have no impact whatsoever on the RD-180 deal.

        Assuming these three scheduled missions go off as planned, that leaves ULA with an even dozen engines as of Sept. 12. By then, I’m guessing the next expected shipment of RD-180′s will likely be overdue. Even if everyone currently expecting more RD-180′s to appear in the saddlebags of Russian unicorns instantly gets the message, there will be no way ULA can complete the block buy on its original terms.

        It may be possible to substitute Delta IV configurations for every one of the no-longer-possible-to-supply Atlas V’s, but not at the same prices and not on the same schedule. ULA may be able to goose up the Delta IV production line a bit, but they’d have to achieve 150% increases in production rate to compensate for missing Atlas V’s, which ULA has historically produced and launched at a roughly 3:2 ratio compared to Delta IV’s. That flatly ain’t gonna happen. ULA will either have to eat the overages or reopen the contract and revise it to suit the realities of the world at large. In years past, they might have been able to get away with doing this quietly and out of sight. No more.

        Of course it was only the prospect of SpaceX’s imminent competition that even persuaded ULA to offer a block buy deal in the first place. As a monopoly supplier they were perfectly content to do one-sy or two-sy deals in the past.

        But now they have competition and that competition is watching. When ULA moves to revisit the block buy – because they must – SpaceX will be there to pounce and take as much of it as they can.

        ULA’s only real hope of getting away with a revised block buy deal may be, ironically, to acknowledge the doom of the Atlas V as soon as possible and re-do the deal before SpaceX completes the EELV certification process. In this way, ULA might – barely – be able to invoke that old “letter of the law” thing about SpaceX not being eligible to bid. Perhaps, though, that ship has already sailed due to USAF having recently acknowledged all three Falcon 9v1.1 flights submitted to it as being successes for purposes of EELV certification. In any event, that option will be completely foreclosed once the certification is in SpaceX’s hands. That may happen as soon as December.

        The world is a multi-jawed mouth full of large, sharp teeth. All of them are rapidly closing on the hapless ULA.

      • Dark Blue Nine

        “The block buy is not going to get broken up. End of story.”

        Incorrect. The opportunities to break up the block buy are multiplying. Judge Braden now has created two paths for breaking up the block buy. Her review of the award process and USAF/SpaceX mediation:

        “The court asked the government to produce a full record of the process that produced the ULA contract, which it will review to determine if it was awarded appropriately and lawfully.

        Perhaps most importantly for SpaceX, the judge also ordered the government to give the company details of the controversial “block buy” contract, including the much-disputed cost of ULA’s launch vehicles, by early August. That will allow SpaceX to determine which missions it could compete for.

        Armed with that knowledge, SpaceX is to submit a mediation plan and proposed mediator to resolve its complaints with the government in early September. That plan will presumably include an opportunity to compete for some of those launches.”

        http://www.spacenews.com/article/military-space/41391judge-orders-mediation-for-spacex-us-air-force

        • Dick Eagleson

          I read that Space News article too. The judge failed to support the contention by ULA that SpaceX had no standing. That would seem to suggest the comparable objection by USAF is also going to go down in flames. That’s also a point against Mr. Listner, Esq. who’s been assuring us for weeks that SpaceX had no standing and their suit would be laughed out of court. Who’s laughing now, Lawyer Mike? Oh yeah, that would be ME!

          That business about producing the full record of the process implies the judge found the whole deal smelly enough to do a thorough colonoscopy on the thing. I’m guessing we may be hearing shortly about subpoenas for e-mails and all the kind of stuff that’s been going on in the IRS investigations in DC. And with a lot of the same ultimate results, I suspect. The full record of the block buy deal is probably going to see some people jailed before it’s over. Everyone involved in this execrable farce should spend the rest of their lives paying through the nose for lawyers, doing depositions, responding to writs, standing trial and serving time. They need to be made examples of with extreme prejudice.

          Okay, enough of waxing wroth. Time for some more of my favorite things – predictions!

          The mediation the judge has mandated is likely to go smoothly. By the time mediation starts, it will be obvious even to ULA and USAF that there will be no more RD-180′s and, hence, no more Atlas V’s beyond the handful buildable with the rapidly dwindling supply of on-hand engines. At that point the block buy will have to be declared dead for ULA’s lack of ability to deliver on it as written. The only question then will be what replaces it.

          USAF has birds that need to fly. I suspect a deal will be struck in which SpaceX makes its own block buy offer for all birds on the manifest whose mass and orbital elements are within the Falcon 9′s lift envelope, with reusability margin or without. USAF will entertain a counteroffer from ULA based on Delta IV. SpaceX will win.

          ULA will then offer a reduced block buy deal for missions with heavy birds based on a combination of Atlas V configurations they still have engines enough to build and upper-end Delta IV Mediums or Delta IV Heavies for the remainder. SpaceX will agree to this deal provided the missions involved are to launch before Jan. 1, 2017, the latest date by which they expect to achieve EELV certification for Falcon Heavy. ULA will object that Falcon Heavy could fail in either testing or certification reviews and miss this date. SpaceX will agree that, in such a case, it will make no objection to ULA getting an additional year of sole-source awards for heavy bird launches. SpaceX will also agree to a contingency version of ULA’s block buy deal that will cover the extra year should ULA be able to offer more savings to the government in this way. There will be a bit of pro forma wrangling about minor points and then all three parties will agree to the pair of agreements, plus the contingency agreement, and everyone will go back to work bending metal and launching satellites.

          In the interim, USAF will find that it likes block buys but not multi-year ones. By Jan. 1, 2017, it will have negotiated new ones for the coming year with both EELV certified suppliers. As preserving alternatives was the original rationale of the EELV program, USAF, using a formula similar to that NASA uses to award CRS and CC contracts – the cheapest supplier gets the most work but all certified bidders get at least some – will award a certain amount of business to the Delta IV division of Boeing, ULA having disintegrated after the end of Atlas V production in early 2016. Boeing will have incentives to get its costs and prices down by being awarded more business as it does so.

          SpaceX will still get the lion’s share of heavy satellite launch missions based on the low cost and generous boost margins of Falcon Heavy. It will get even more of the small and medium payloads for Falcon 9. The main price competition for future USAF annual block buys is going to be between SpaceX and Orbital Sciences-ATK for small and medium payloads.

          Taking a page from SpaceX’s book, Orbital will surprise everyone by making its Antares Mk2 launcher reusable in a way similar to SpaceX’s Falcon 9, but different too. The new Antares 1st stage will feature a cluster of seven ATK solid rocket engines, each putting out 250,000 lbs. of thrust. The first stage will also have a half dozen small, steerable, pressure-fed, LOX-Methane liquid fueled engines producing 8,000 lbs. of thrust each around its periphery.

          On ascent the liquid-fueled engines provide modest extra thrust plus steering control. At MECO, all seven solid-fueled engine casings, now spent, are ejected rearward and discarded. The remaining lightened 1st stage mass now flies a somewhat SpaceX-like return-to-launch-site trajectory using all six liquid-fueled engines during re-entry and three to land vertically with on fold-down, tripod legs.

          ATK’s expertise making ammunition, tactical rocket motors and large solid-fueled rocket engines are combined to make the Antares 1st-stage main engines cheap and disposable, but also of high quality. The Orbital-ATK ammunition and tactical rocket motor engineers get to design the production line.

          Orbital-ATK will only have a single test mission for the revamped Antares under its belt as of Jan. 1, 2017, but the coming year will see it launch three more CRS missions to ISS with this vehicle, plus a CC mission pushing a Dream Chaser per its recent agreement with Sierra Nevada Corp. The vehicle, already in the preliminaries of EELV certification, will receive that imprimatur by Jan. 1, 2018.

  • Jim Nobles

    You know, it occurs to me that for ULA the real prize at stake is the $1B a year payoff. As long as no one officially cancels the RD-180 (Russia or Congress) they can keep claiming the block buy is still on and therefore the Mission Assurance checks must still keep being signed by the taxpayers.

    They can use whatever engines they have in stock and say whatever they have to say to keep Congress from stopping the block buy. As long as ULA exists and the RD-180 deliveries have not been officially halted or hindered they still get the $1B a year from the taxpayers.

    With the new upcoming tech looking like it’s going to make the Atlas V obsolete anyway they might not even care that much about keeping the Atlas V flying any longer than they have engines in stock for.

    They just want the $1B a year payoff. If they have to launch a core now and then that would be okay but the important thing would be to stretch those $1B a year payments out for as long as they can.

    I think that for ULA this may be the main issue here, not whether or not the engines keep getting delivered. I hope the Judge and members of Congress can see what is going on here.

    • Michael J. Listner

      Maybe, maybe not. The Court still has to rule on the USAF Motion to Dismiss. Only the ULA Motion to Dismiss was denied by the judge basically say that as an intervenor it didn’t have the right to object to standing. The Court could still grant the USAF Motion to Dismiss. All the Court is doing with these two orders is setting the parties up for mediation and preparing to try the case if Motion to Dismiss is denied and mediation fails. Even if the Court denies the USAF Motion to Dismiss, USAF can file an interlocutory appeal, which they will almost certainly do if their motion is denied.

      • Dick Eagleson

        You got tackled hard behind the line of scrimmage on this one, Lawyer Mike. You might want to take a few seconds to shake off the hit and adjust your cup before you go predicting again. There’s obviously a strong enough stench coming from the block buy deal that the judge is in no mood to just stamp it Grade AAA Fancy Extra-Large and move on.

        • Michael J. Listner

          We’ll see.

        • Michael J. Listner

          And actually, I didn’t take a hit. You’re so busy looking at me that you don’t see that linebacker charging you from the blind side. Watch your own predictions. I can cover my backside just fine.

          • Dick Eagleson

            Not being a big deal space lawyer I sometimes get confused by all this legal stuff with the big Latin words and all. So maybe you can help me out here. Why would a judge who was in any way leaning toward granting USAF’s request for dismissal due to alleged lack of standing also ask for the complete record of the transaction at issue as well as order compulsory mediation of the dispute? If she was going to dismiss the complaint, wouldn’t she just do that and make an end of it? How is mandated discovery and mandated mediation consistent with dismissal of the basic complaint? How does it make sense to, in essence, say, “You have no business bringing this complaint. Buuuut, as long as you and these other two parties are here anyway, I’m going to order you to sit down at the same table and try to work this thing out… Oh yeah, and you other two guys, I’m going to put periscopes up both your asses and see what there is to be seen. Now all of you, get busy!”

  • Mader Levap

    Why? Simple. As Listner succintly said, more money for parasi… er, lawyers on every side.

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