America’s premier rocket launch services providerUnited Launch Alliance, or ULA, may be up for sale according to media reports, including Reuters and the Wall Street Journal. Any such sale would result in a major shakeup of the American rocket launching business with far reaching implications.
Aerojet-Rocketdyne has apparently made a bid to buy ULA for approximately $2 Billion in cash, based on behind the scenes information gathered from unnamed sources.
ULA was formed in 2006 as a 50:50 joint venture between aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing that combined their existing expendable rocket fleet families – the Atlas V and Delta IV – under one roof.
According to Reuters, Aerojet Rocketdyne recently proffered a $2 billion cash offer to buy ULA from Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
“Aerojet Rocketdyne board member Warren Lichtenstein, the chairman and chief executive of Steel Partners LLC, approached ULA President Tory Bruno and senior Lockheed and Boeing executives about the bid in early August,” sources told Reuters.
ULA’s Bruno declined to comment on the story via twitter.
“Wish I could, but as a matter of policy, we don’t comment on this type of story,” Bruno tweeted in response to inquiries.
Since 2006 ULA has enjoyed phenomenal launch success with its venerable fleet of Atlas V and Delta IV rockets and also enjoyed a virtual launch monopoly with the US Government and for the nations most critical national security military payloads.
And just last week, ULA conducted its 99th launch with the successful blastoff of an Atlas V with the MUOS-4 military communications satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for the U.S. Navy.
Furthermore a Congressional ban on importing the Russian-made RD-180 first stage engines that power the Atlas V rocket, that takes effect in a few years, has threatened the rockets future viability. The Atlas V dependence on Russia’s RD-180’s landed at the center of controversy after Russia invaded Crimea in the spring of 2014.
To date the Atlas V enjoys a 100 percent success rate after over 50 launches.
In response to the Congressional RD-180 engine ban and relentless cost pressures from SpaceX, ULA CEO Tory Bruno and ULA Vice President for Advanced Concepts and Technology George Sowers announced ULA will develop a cost effective new rocket named Vulcan using American made engines.
“To be successful and survive ULA needs to transform to be more of a competitive company in a competitive environment,” Dr. Sowers told Universe Today in a wide ranging interview regarding the rationale and goals of the Vulcan rocket.
Vulcan is ULA’s next generation rocket to space and slated for an inaugural liftoff in 2019.
However, Lockheed Martin and Boeing are only providing funds to ULA on a quarterly basis to continue development of the Vulcan.
Vulcan’s first stage will most likely be powered by the BE-4 engine being developed by the secretive Blue Origin aerospace firm owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos.
Interestingly, ULA is also evaluating the AR-1 liquid fueled engine being developed by Aerojet-Rocketdyne.
The final decision on which engine to use is expected sometime in 2016.
The engine choice could clearly be impacted if Aerojet-Rocketdyne buys ULA.
Aerojet-Rocketdyne has also sought to buy the rights to manufacture the Atlas V from ULA, which is currently planned to be retired several years after Vulcan is introduced.
To this writer, ULA would seem to be worth far more than $2 Billion. They own manufacturing and rocket launch facilities on both coasts and in several states.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
SpaceX Falcon 9 is now certified for USAF launches. SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The U.S. Air Force announced Tuesday that they have certified SpaceX to launch the nations critical and highly valuable national security satellites on the firms Falcon 9 rocket, thereby breaking the decade old launch monopoly held by launch competitor United Launch Alliance (ULA). ULA is a joint venture owned by aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
The Air Force’s goal in approving the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster is aimed at drastically cutting the high cost of access to space by introducing competition in the awarding of military mission launch contacts. The prior contract involved a sole source $11 Billion “block buy” bid for 36 rocket cores from ULA in December 2013 which was legally challenged by SpaceX in April 2014, but eventually settled by SpaceX in an agreement with the USAF earlier this year.
Lieutenant General Samuel Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), announced the long awaited decision on Tuesday, May 26.
The certification milestone came after a grueling two year review process in which the Air Force invested more than $60 million and 150 people to thoroughly review all aspects of the Falcon 9 booster. The review was based on three successful flights by the Falcon 9 v1.1 which first launched in late 2013.
The purpose of certification is to assure that qualified launch providers could meet the challenge of safely, securely and reliably lofting expensive U.S. national security military missions to space and into their intended orbits with full mission capability that are critical for maintaining national defense.
“The SpaceX and SMC teams have worked hard to achieve certification,” said Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space, in a statement.
“And we’re also maintaining our spaceflight worthiness process supporting the National Security Space missions. Our intent is to promote the viability of multiple EELV-class launch providers as soon as feasible.”
And the competitive launch races “for award of qualified national security space launch missions” between SpaceX and ULA start very soon, within the next month says the USAF.
In June, the Air Force will issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for GPS III launch services. ULA has three GPS launches in its manifest for 2015.
Of course SpaceX was overjoyed on hearing the certification news.
“This is an important step toward bringing competition to National Security Space launch, said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Lead Designer.
‘We thank the Air Force for its confidence in us and look forward to serving it well.”
Until today, ULA has held a launch monopoly over military missions since the company was founded in 2006. ULA also launches many NASA science missions, but very few commercial satellites.
Thus the U.S. military and NASA provide the core of ULA’s business and the source of much of its income and profits.
“This is a very important milestone for the Air Force and the Department of Defense,” said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, in a statement.
“SpaceX’s emergence as a viable commercial launch provider provides the opportunity to compete launch services for the first time in almost a decade. Ultimately, leveraging of the commercial space market drives down cost to the American taxpayer and improves our military’s resiliency.”
Other military spacecraft in the future could involve vehicles such as the X-37B space plane which recently launched on an Atlas V, as well as weather satellites, signals intelligence and missile warning satellites and a range of top secret missions for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) that have been routinely launched by ULA with a 100% success rate to date.
ULA’s stable of launchers includes the Atlas V and Delta IV families of vehicles. ULA is phasing out the Delta IV due to its high costs. Only the Delta IV Heavy will remain in service as required to launch the very heaviest satellites that cannot be accommodated by less powerful rockets.
ULA is also replacing the Atlas V with the partly reusable new Vulcan rocket, that will be phased in starting in 2019 using American-made engines from either Blue Origin or Aerojet Rocketdyne.
The Atlas V uses Russian made RD-180 engines, who’s use has become highly contentious since the deadly crisis in Ukraine erupted in 2014.
The ensuing threats of RD-180 engine embargoes and imposition of sanctions and counter sanctions imposed by the US and Russia have thus placed US national security at risk by being dependent on a rocket with foreign made engines whose future supply chain was uncertain.
U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been highly critical of the ULA dependence on the Russian RD-180 engines and issued this statement in response to the Air Force announcement.
“The certification of SpaceX as a provider for defense space launch contracts is a win for competition, said McCain.
“Over the last 15 years, as sole-source contracts were awarded, the cost of EELV was quickly becoming unjustifiably high. I am hopeful that this and other new competition will help to bring down launch costs and end our reliance on Russian rocket engines that subsidizes Vladimir Putin and his cronies.”
Overall the Air Force “invested more than $60 million and 150 people in the certification effort which encompassed 125 certification criteria, including more than 2,800 discreet tasks, 3 certification flight demonstrations, verifying 160 payload interface requirements, 21 major subsystem reviews and 700 audits in order to establish the technical baseline from which the Air Force will make future flight worthiness determinations for launch.”
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Blastoff of the X-37B spaceplane on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the OTV-4 AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com Story updated with additional details and photos[/caption]
The X-37B, a reusable Air Force space plane launched today, May 20, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on its fourth mission steeped in mystery as to its true goals for the U.S . military and was accompanied by ten tiny cubesat experiments for NASA and the NRO, including a solar sailing demonstration test for The Planetary Society.
The military space plan successfully blasted off for low Earth orbit atop a 20 story United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on the clandestine Air Force Space Command 5 (AFSPC-5) satellite mission for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office at 11:05 a.m. EDT (1505 GMT) today, May 20, from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
The weather cooperated for a spectacular liftoff from the Florida space coast, which was webcast live by ULA until five minutes after launch when it went into a communications blackout shortly after announcing the successful ignition of the Centaur upper stage.
The exact launch time was classified until it was released by the Department of Defense this morning. Early this morning the four hour launch window was narrowed down to two small windows of opportunity.
Among the experiments for the flight are 10 CubeSats housed in the Aft Bulkhead Carrier (ABC) located below the Centaur upper stage. Together they are part of the National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO’s) Ultra Lightweight Technology and Research Auxiliary Satellite (ULTRASat). The 10 CubeSats in ULTRASat are managed by the NRO and NASA. They are contained in eight P-Pods from which they will be deployed in the coming days.
Also aboard the X-37B is a NASA materials science experiment called METIS and an advanced Hall thruster experiment. The Hall thruster is a type of electric propulsion device that produces thrust by ionizing and accelerating a noble gas, usually xenon.
Following primary spacecraft separation the Centaur will change altitude and inclination in order to release the CubeSat spacecraft.
They are sponsored by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and NASA and were developed by the U.S. Naval Academy, the Aerospace Corporation, the Air Force Research Laboratory, California Polytechnic State University, and The Planetary Society.
LightSail marks the first controlled, Earth orbit solar sail flight according to the non-profit Planetary Society. Photons from the sun should push on the solar sails.
“The purpose of this LightSail demonstration test is to verify telemetry, return photos return and to test the deployment of the solar sails,” said Bill Nye, the Science Guy), and President of The Planetary Society, during the X-37B launch webcast.
“LightSail is comprised of three CubeSats that measure about 30 cm by 10 cm.”
“It’s smaller than a shoebox, everybody! And the sail that will come out of it is super shiny mylar. We’re very hopeful that the thing will deploy properly, the sunlight will hit it and we’ll get a push.”
The Boeing-built X-37B is an unmanned reusable mini shuttle, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) and is flying on the OTV-4 mission. It launches vertically like a satellite but lands horizontally like an airplane and functions as a reliable and reusable space test platform for the U.S. Air Force.
“ULA is honored to launch this unique spacecraft for the U.S Air Force. Congratulations to the Air Force and all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch! The seamless integration between the Air Force, Boeing, and the entire mission team culminated in today’s successful launch of the AFSPC-5 mission” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.
The two stage Atlas V stands 206 feet tall and weighs 757,000 pounds.
The X-37B was carried to orbit by the Atlas V in its 501 configuration which includes a 5.4-meter-diameter payload fairing and no solid rocket motors. The Atlas first stage booster for this mission was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine generating some 850,000 pounds of thrust and fired for approximately the first four and a half minutes of flight. The Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.
The X-37B space plane was to separate from the Centaur about 19 minutes after liftoff. The Centaur continued firing separately with the CubeSat deployment, including the Planetary Society’s LightSail test demoonstration, into a different orbit later.
Overall this was ULA’s sixth launch of the 501 configuration the 54th mission to launch on an Atlas V rocket. This was also ULA’s fifth launch in 2015 and the 96th successful launch since the company was formed in December 2006.
The OTV is somewhat like a miniature version of NASA’s space shuttles.
Boeing has built two OTV vehicles. But it is not known which of the two vehicles was launched today.
Altogether the two X-37B vehicles have spent a cumulative total of 1367 days in space during the first three OTV missions and successfully checked out the vehicles reusable flight, reentry and landing technologies.
The 11,000 pound (4990 kg) state-of -the art reusable OTV space plane was built by Boeing and is about a quarter the size of a NASA space shuttle. It was originally developed by NASA but was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004.
All three OTV missions to date have launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida and landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Future missions could potentially land at the shuttle landing facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.
The first OTV mission launched on April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit.
The following flights were progressively longer in duration. The second OTV mission began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit. The third OTV mission launched on Dec. 11, 2012 and landed on Oct. 17, 2014 after 674 days in orbit.
The vehicle measures 29 ft 3 in (8.9 m) in length with a wingspan of 14 ft 11 in (4.5 m). The payload bay measures 7 ft × 4 ft (2.1 m × 1.2 m). The space plane is powered by Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with Lithium-Ion batteries.
Among the primary mission goals of the first three flights were check outs of the vehicles capabilities and reentry systems and testing the ability to send experiments to space and return them safely. OTV-4 will shift somewhat more to conducting research.
“We are excited about our fourth X-37B mission,” Randy Walden, director of the USAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. “With the demonstrated success of the first three missions, we’re able to shift our focus from initial checkouts of the vehicle to testing of experimental payloads.”
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
The International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth orbit
The sole way for every American and station partner astronaut to fly to space and the ISS is aboard the Russian Soyuz manned capsule since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttles in 2011. There are currently NO alternatives to Russia’s Soyuz. Credit: NASA[/caption]
Virtually every aspect of the manned and unmanned US space program – including NASA, other government agencies, private aerospace company’s and crucially important US national security payloads – are highly dependent on Russian & Ukrainian rocketry and are therefore potentially at risk amidst the current Crimea crisis as tensions flared up dangerously in recent days between Ukraine and Russia with global repercussions.
The International Space Station (ISS), astronaut rides to space and back, the Atlas V and Antares rockets and even critical U.S. spy satellites providing vital, real time intelligence gathering are among the examples of programs that may be in peril if events deteriorate or worse yet, spin out of control.
The Crimean confrontation and all the threats and counter threats of armed conflicts and economic sanctions shines a spotlight on US vulnerabilities regarding space exploration, private industry and US national security programs, missions, satellites and rockets.
The consequences of escalating tensions could be catastrophic for all sides.
Many Americans are likely unaware of the extent to which the US, Russian and Ukrainian space programs, assets and booster rockets are inextricably intertwined and interdependent.
First, let’s look at America’s dependency on Russia regarding the ISS.
The massive orbiting lab complex is a partnership of 15 nations and five space agencies worldwide – including Russia’s Roscosmos and the US NASA. The station is currently occupied by a six person crew of three Russians, two Americans and one Japanese.
Since the forced retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, America completely lost its own human spaceflight capability. So now the only ticket for astronauts to space and back is by way of the Russian Soyuz capsule.
American and station partner astronauts are 100% dependent on Russia’s three seat Soyuz capsule and rocket for rides to the ISS.
Russia has a monopoly on reaching the station because the shuttle was shut down by political ‘leaders’ in Washington, DC before a new U.S. manned space system was brought online.
And congressional budget cutters have repeatedly slashed NASA’s budget, thereby increasing the gap in US manned spaceflight launches from American soil by several years already.
Congress was repeatedly warned of the consequences by NASA and responded with further reductions to NASA’s budget.
In a continuation of the normal crew rotation routines, three current crew members are set to depart the ISS in a Soyuz and descend to Earth on Monday, March 10.
Coincidentally, one of those Russian crew members, Oleg Kotov, was actually born in Crimea when it was part of the former Soviet Union.
A new three man crew of two Russians and one American is set to blast off in their Soyuz capsule from Russia’s launch pad in Kazakhstan on March 25.
The U.S. pays Russia $70 million per Soyuz seat under the most recent contact, while American aerospace workers are unemployed.
The fastest and most cost effective path to restore America’s human spaceflight capability to low Earth orbit and the ISS is through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) seeking to develop private ‘space taxis’ with Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada.
Alas, Congress has sliced NASA’s CCP funding request by about 50% each year and the 1st commercial crew flight to orbit has consequently been postponed by more than three years.
So it won’t be until 2017 at the earliest that NASA can end its total dependence on Russia’s Soyuz.
A sensible policy to eliminate US dependence on Russia would be to accelerate CCP, not cut it to the bone, especially in view of the Crimean crisis which remains unresolved as of this writing.
If U.S. access to Soyuz seats were to be cut off, the implications would be dire and it could mean the end of the ISS.
When NASA Administrator Chales Bolden was asked about contingencies at a briefing yesterday, March 4, he responded that everything is OK for now.
“Right now, everything is normal in our relationship with the Russians,” said Bolden.
“Missions up and down are on target.”
“People lose track of the fact that we have occupied the International Space Station now for 13 consecutive years uninterrupted, and that has been through multiple international crises.”
“I don’t think it’s an insignificant fact that we are starting to see a number of people with the idea that the International Space Station be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
But he urged Congress to fully fund CCP and avoid still more delays.
“Let me be clear about one thing,” Bolden said.
“The choice here is between fully funding the request to bring space launches back to the US or continuing millions in subsidies to the Russians. It’s that simple. The Obama administration chooses investing in America, and we believe Congress will choose this course as well.”
Now let’s examine a few American rockets which include substantial Russian and Ukrainian components – without which they cannot lift one nanometer off the ground.
The Atlas V rocket developed by United Launch Alliance is the current workhorse of the US expendable rocket fleet.
Coincidentally the next Atlas V due to blastoff on March 25 will carry a top secret spy satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
The Atlas V first stage however is powered by the Russian built and supplied RD-180 rocket engine.
Several Air Force – DOD satellites are launched on the Atlas V every year.
What will happen to shipments of the dual nozzle, dual chamber RD-180’s manufactured by Russia’s NPO Energomesh in the event of economic sanctions or worse? It’s anyone’s guess.
ULA also manufactures the Delta IV expendable rocket which is virtually all American made and has successfully launched numerous US national security payloads.
The Antares rocket and Cygnus resupply freighter developed by Orbital Sciences are essential to NASA’s plans to restore US cargo delivery runs to the ISS – another US capability lost by voluntarily stopping shuttle flights. .
Orbital Sciences and SpaceX are both under contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg of supplies to the station. And they both have now successfully docked their cargo vehicles – Cygnus and Dragon – to the ISS.
The first stage of Antares is built in Ukraine by the Yuzhnoye Design Bureau and Yuzhmash.
And the Ukrainian booster factory is located in the predominantly Russian speaking eastern region – making for an even more complicated situation.
By contrast, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo vessel is virtually entirely American built and not subject to economic embargoes.
At a US Congressional hearing held today (March 5) dealing with national security issues, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk underscored the crucial differences in availability between the Falcon 9 and Atlas V in this excerpt from his testimony:
“In light of Russia’s de facto annexation of the 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, said Space X CEO and founder Elon Musk, at the US Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing on Defense.
So, continuing operations of the ISS and US National Security are potentially held hostage to the whims of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia has threatened to retaliate with sanctions against the West, if the West institutes sanctions against Russia.
The Crimean crisis is without a doubt the most dangerous East-West conflict since the end of the Cold War.
Right now no one knows the future outcome of the crisis in Crimea. Diplomats are talking but some limited military assets on both sides are reportedly on the move today.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, Orion, commercial space, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.
Tonight, Tuesday, Nov. 19, tens of millions of residents up and down the US East coast have another opportunity to watch a spectacular night launch from NASA’s Wallops Island facility in Virginia – weather permitting.
See a collection of detailed visibility and trajectory viewing maps, as well as streaming video of the launch, courtesy of rocket provider Orbital Sciences and NASA Wallops Flight Facility.
And to top that off, the four stage Minotaur 1 rocket is jam packed with a record setting payload of 29 satellites headed for Earth orbit.
And if that’s not enough to pique your interest, the Virginia seaside launch will also feature the first cubesat built by high school students.
And viewing is open to the public.
Blastoff of the Minotaur I rocket for the Department of Defense’s Operationally Responsive Space Office on the ORS-3 mission is on target for tonight, Nov. 19, from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Pad-0B at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the eastern shore of Virginia.
The launch window for the 70 foot tall booster opens at 7:30 pm EST and extends until 9:15 pm EST.
The ORS-3 mission is a combined US Air Force and NASA endeavor that follows the flawless Nov. 18 launch of NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter from Florida by just 1 day.
However the pair of East coast launch pads are separated by some 800 miles.
According to NASA and Orbital Sciences, the launch may be visible along a wide swatch from northern Florida to southern Canada and well into the Midwest stretching to Indiana – if the clouds are minimal and atmospheric conditions are favorable from your particular viewing site.
The primary payload is the Space Test Program Satellite-3 (STPSat-3), an Air Force technology-demonstration mission, according to NASA.
Also loaded aboard are thirteen small cubesats being provided through NASA’s Cubesat Launch Initiative, NASA said in a statement. Among the cubesats is NASA’s Small Satellite Program PhoneSat 2 second generation smartphone mission and the first ever cubesat assembled by high schooler’s.
Locally, the NASA Visitor Center at Wallops and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge/Assateague Island National Seashore will be open for viewing the launch. Visitors to Assateague need to be on the island by 6 p.m. before the entrance gate closes.
Live coverage of the launch is available via UStream beginning at 6:30 p.m. EST on launch day. Watch below: