SpaceX CEO Elon Musk Sues Government to Break US Air Force’s National Security Launch Monopoly

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announces lawsuit protesting Air Force launch contracts while speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on April 25, 2014
Story updated[/caption]

Elon Musk, CEO and founder of the upstart commercial launch venture SpaceX, announced at a press conference today, Friday, April 25, that SpaceX is filing suit against the Federal Government to protest and break the US Air Force’s awarding of lucrative launch contracts for high priority national security satellites to a sole rocket provider – United Launch Alliance (ULA) – on a non competitive basis.

The gloves are officially off in the intensely mounting duel over multibillion dollar Air Force military launch contracts between SpaceX and ULA.

“The official protest document will be available Monday, April 28th at www.freedomtolaunch.com and will be filed with the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C.,” said SpaceX in an official statement.

Musk said the Air Force launch contract with ULA amounted to a continuing monopoly, was unfair by blocking SpaceX from competing for launches of surveillance satellites and would cost taxpayers billions of extra dollars in coming years.

“What we feel is that this is not right – that the national security launches should be put up for competition and they should not be awarded on a sole source, uncompeted basis,” said Musk at the briefing called on short notice and held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

SpaceX is suing the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is suing the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The latest Air Force launch contract dated to December 2013 guarantees the “block buy” purchase of 36 rocket cores from ULA for national security launches for the DOD, NRO and other government agencies, at a significantly reduced cost compared to earlier contracts.

A further 14 cores were to be awarded on a competitive basis, including bids from SpaceX and others who seek to gain Air Force certification. Several of those launch awards have now been deferred indefinitely.

ULA is a joint venture between aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin, formed in 2006, that has launched over 80 satellites to orbit and beyond including many NASA science and mission probes like Orion EFT-1, Curiosity, MAVEN, TDRS and more.

It manufactures the Delta IV and Atlas V unmanned, expendable rocket families that are currently the only boosters certified to launch the high value military payloads at issue in the lawsuit announced on Friday by Musk.

The newest versions of the Delta and Atlas rockets – known as EELV’s (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles) have had nearly flawless records of success since being introduced some dozen years ago by the companies individually, before the ULA merger.

Atlas V rocket and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on March 24, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Atlas V rocket and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on March 24, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Musk wants his company’s newer and he says much cheaper Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets to be certified by the Air Force and included in the competition for launch contracts.

To date the Falcon 9 has launched only 9 times. Only four of those were in the new and more powerful configuration needed by the Air Force.

Musk is not asking that the launches be awarded outright to SpaceX. But he does want the Air Force contract cancelled and re-competed.

“We’re just protesting and saying that the launches should be competed,” Musk said.

“If we compete and lose that’s fine. But why were they not even competed? That just doesn’t make sense.”

“So far we are most of the way through the certification process. And so far there have been zero changes to the rocket. Mostly it’s just been a paperwork exercise.”

“Since this is a large multiyear contract, why not wait a few months for the certification process to complete. And then do the competition. That seems very reasonable to me.”

Musk said it costs four times more to launch ULA’s Delta or Atlas rocket vs. a SpaceX Falcon rocket.

“The ULA rockets are basically four times more expensive than ours. So this contract is costing US taxpayers billions of dollars for no reason.”

“Each launch by ULA costs American taxpayers roughly $400 million per launch. They are insanely expensive. I don’t know why they are so expensive.”

The Falcon 9 lists for about $60 Million per launch, but rises to about $100 million after the certification costs are included, Musk explained.

“So yes the certification does make our Falcon 9 rocket more expensive. But not 400% more expensive.”

“Our rockets are 21st century design,” said Musk to obtain the most efficiency. He said ULA’s designs date back to the 90s and earlier with heritage hardware.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec 3, 2013 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec 3, 2013 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

To date the Falcon 9 has already been used three times under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to launch the private SpaceX Dragon resupply vessel to the International Space Station (ISS) – most recently a week ago during the April 18 blastoff of the SpaceX CRS-3 mission from Cape Canaveral.

It is also being used to launch highly expensive communications satellites like SES-8 and Thaicom-6 for private companies to geostationary orbits.

“It just seems odd that if our vehicle is good enough for NASA and supporting a $100 billion space station, and it’s good enough for launching NASA science satellites, for launching complex commercial geostationary satellites, then there’s no reasonable basis for it not being capable of launching something quite simple like a GPS satellite,” said Musk.

“Our only option is to file a protest.”

Furthermore as I wrote here in a prior article, US National Security launches are now potentially at risk due to the ongoing crisis between Russian, Ukraine and Crimea because the RD-180 first stage engines powering the Atlas V are designed and manufactured in Russia by NPO Energomash, majority owned by the Russian Federation.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announces lawsuit protesting Air Force launch contracts while speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on April 25, 2014.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announces lawsuit protesting Air Force launch contracts while speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on April 25, 2014

“The head of the Russian space sector, Dmitry Rogozin, was sanctioned by the White House in March 2014 in the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine,” says SpaceX.

The RD-180 engine supply could be cut off in a worst case scenario if economic sanctions against Russia are increased by the Western allies.

ULA has a two year contingency supply of the RD-180’s and blueprints to begin production, if needed.

However in the event of a cutoff, it would take at least three to five years to start and certify RD-180 engine production somewhere in the US, a ULA spokesperson told me recently at Cape Canaveral.

This possibly leaves a 1 to 3 year gap with no Atlas V 1st stage engine supply.

The Delta IV rockets and engines by contrast are manufactured in the US.

“In light of international events, this seems like the wrong time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kremlin,” said Musk.

“Yet, this is what the Air Force’s arrangement with ULA does, despite the fact that there are domestic alternatives available that do not rely on components from countries that pose a national security risk.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Super Secret Spy Satellite Soars Spectacularly to Space aboard Atlas V booster from Cape Canaveral – Launch Gallery

Blastoff of the Atlas V rocket with the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
Launch gallery expanded and updated – with timelapse ![/caption]

A super secret US spy satellite soared spectacularly to space this afternoon from Cape Canaveral atop a very powerful version of the Atlas V rocket on a classified flight for the National Reconnaissance Office.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V carrying the NROL-67 intelligence gathering satellite on a US national security mission for the NRO lifted off from Space Launch Complex-41 ignited its engines precisely on the targeted time on April 10 at 1:45 p.m. EDT into brilliant blue Florida skies on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

This mighty version of the 191 ft (58 m) tall Atlas V whose thrust was augmented with four strap on solid rocket motors has only been used once before – to loft NASA’s Curiosity rover to the Red Planet back in November 2011.

Atlas V NROL-67 launch photographed by iPhone from Cocoa Beach on April 10, 2014 while swimming. Credit: Nicole Solomon
Atlas V NROL-67 launch photographed by iPhone from Cocoa Beach on April 10, 2014 while swimming with the Florida fish. Credit: Nicole Solomon

Today’s Atlas V launch, as well as another for SpaceX/NASA, was postponed over two weeks ago from March 25 & 30 amidst final launch preparations when an electrical short completely knocked out use of the US Air Force’s crucial tracking radar that is mandatory to insure public safety for all launches on the Eastern Range.

Atlas V/NROL-67 spy satellite soars off Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral on April 10, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/WiredforSpace
Atlas V/NROL-67 spy satellite soars off Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral on April 10, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/Wired4space.com

Nothing is publicly known about the NROL surveillance satellite, its capabilities, orbit or mission or goals.

Due to the covert nature of this mission, the flight entered the now standard total news blackout and the TV transmission ceased barely five minutes after liftoff.

The successful blastoff follows closely on the heels of another Atlas V launch just seven days ago.

On April 3, ULA launched a less powerful version of the Atlas V carrying an Air Force weather satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

Blastoff of the Atlas V rocket with the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.     Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
Blastoff of the Atlas V rocket with the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
Clear of the catenary lightning wires the Atlas 5-541 booster with its NROL-67 payload roar to orbit on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: nasatech.net
Clear of the catenary lightning wires the Atlas 5-541 booster with its NROL-67 payload roar to orbit on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: nasatech.net

“We are honored to deliver this national security asset to orbit together with our customers the NRO Office of Space Launch and the Air Force,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

“Successfully launching two missions from two different coasts in just seven days is a testament to the team’s one-launch-at-a-time focus and ULA’s commitment to mission success and schedule reliability.”

Today’s liftoff involved use of the Atlas V in the 541 configuration. The NROL-67 payload was housed inside a 5-meter diameter payload fairing. And a total of four US built Aerojet Rocketdyne solid rocket motors were mounted on the first stage of the booster.

Atlas V/NROL-67 spy satellite soars off Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral on April 10, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/WiredforSpace
Atlas V/NROL-67 spy satellite soars off Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral on April 10, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/Wired4space.com

The Centaur upper stage which boosted NROL-67 to Earth orbit was powered by a single Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A engine.

The Atlas V first stage was also powered by the dual nozzle RD AMROSS RD-180 engine manufactured in Russia.

Use of the Russian designed and built RD AMROSS RD-180 engine potentially puts Atlas V launches and US National Security launches at risk, if the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea spins out of control as I have reported previously.

“ULA maintains a two year stockpile of the RD-180 engines at all times,” ULA Jessica Rye spokesperson told me recently at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The next ULA launch from the Cape is scheduled for May 15 when a Delta IV rocket will loft the GPS IIF-6 mission for the United States Air Force from Space Launch Complex-37.

Rising quickly from Pad 41 on its RD-180 and 4 SRBs, the Atlas 5-541 vehicle begins its mission to geosync orbit. Credit: nasatech.net
Rising quickly from Pad 41 on its RD-180 and 4 SRBs, the Atlas 5-541 vehicle begins its mission to geosync orbit. Credit: nasatech.net

A SpaceX Falcon 9 is slated to launch on Monday, April 14 at 4:58 p.m. EDT.

The Falcon 9 is lofting a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship and delivering some 5000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the six man space station crew – under a resupply contract with NASA.

Also packed aboard the Dragon are a pair of legs for NASA’s experimental Robonaut 2 crew member.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Atlas V NROL 67, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Learn more at Ken’s upcoming presentations at the NEAF astro/space convention, NY on April 12/13.

Ken Kremer

Startled Florida space coast sunbathers see sudden blastoff of Atlas V/NROl-67 from Cocoa Beach on April 10, 2014. Credit: Nicolle Solomon by iPhone
Startled Florida space coast sunbathers see sudden blastoff of Atlas V/NROl-67 from Cocoa Beach on April 10, 2014. Credit: Nicole Solomon by iPhone
Timelapse of Atlas V/NROL-67 blastoff on April 10, 2014. Credit: Chuck Higgins
Timelapse of Atlas V/NROL-67 blastoff on April 10, 2014. Credit: Chuck Higgins
April 10, 2014 blastoff of Atlas V rocket with super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.     Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
April 10, 2014 blastoff of Atlas V rocket with super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Atlas V rocket and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on March 24, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Atlas V rocket and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. The Atlas V launched on April 10, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

US Spy Sat and SpaceX Set for Double Barreled Blastoffs After Critical Cape Canaveral Radar Revitalized

The Florida Space Coast is about to ignite with a doubled barreled dose of spectacular rocket launches from Cape Canaveral over the next few days that were suddenly postponed two weeks ago amidst final launch preparations when an electrical short completely knocked out use of the US Air Force’s crucial tracking radar that is mandatory to insure public safety.

A pair of liftoffs vital to US National Security and NASA/SpaceX are now slated for April 10 and April 14 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station after revitalizing the radar systems.

The tracking radar is an absolutely essential asset for the Eastern Range that oversees all launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V is now slated to launch on Thursday, April 10 at 1:45 p.m. EDT.

Artwork for Super Secret NROL-67 payload launching on Atlas V rocket. Credit: NRO/ULA
Artwork for Super Secret NROL-67 payload launching on Atlas V rocket. Credit: NRO/ULA

The Atlas V rocket is carrying the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

The SpaceX Falcon 9 is slated to launch on Monday, April 14 at 4:58 p.m. EDT.

The Falcon 9 is lofting a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship and delivering some 5000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the six man space station crew – under a resupply contract with NASA.

The pair of liftoffs of the Atlas V and Falcon 9 boosters for the NRO and SpaceX/NASA had been slated just days apart on March 25 and March 30, respectively.

Falcon 9 and Dragon static fire test on March 8, 2014. Credit: SpaceX
Falcon 9 and Dragon static fire test on March 8, 2014. Credit: SpaceX

I was on site at Cape Canaveral Launch Pad 41 photographing the Atlas V rocket carrying the NRO payload in anticipation of the launch.

Shortly thereafter a fire of unexplained origin in the radar equipment unexpected occurred and knocked the tracking radar off line. When no quick fix was possible, both launches were delayed indefinitely pending repairs.

“The tracking radar experienced an electrical short, overheating the unit and rendering the radar inoperable,” said the USAF in a statement I received from the 45th Space Wing that controls the critical launch control systems, communications, computers and radar elements at the Eastern Range.

On Monday, April 7, the Air Force announced that range repairs were on target and that a retired, inactive radar had been brought back online.

“A radar that was previously in standby status has been brought back to operational status while the repair work is being accomplished,” said the USAF in a statement.

A fully functional tracking radar is an absolute requirement to ensure the success and safety of every rocket launch.

Insufficient maintenance and antiquated equipment due to a lack of US government funding and investment in infrastructure may be at fault for the electrical short.

The Eastern range radar must function perfectly in order to destroy any rocket in a split second in the event it abruptly veers off course towards the nearby populated areas along the Florida Space Coast.

The Atlas V rocket was rolled out earlier today to Space Launch Complex 41 in preparation for Thursday’s NROL-67 launch. The weather forecast shows a 90 percent chance of favorable weather conditions for launch.

The Dragon spacecraft, filled with about 4,600 lbs of cargo bound for the space station, is mated with Falcon 9.  Credit: SpaceX
The Dragon spacecraft, filled with about 4,600 lbs of cargo bound for the space station, is mated with Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Atlas V NROL 67, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Learn more at Ken’s upcoming presentations at the NEAF astro/space convention, NY on April 12/13.

Ken Kremer

Crucial Radar Outage Scrubs US National Security and SpaceX Launches for Several Weeks from Cape Canaveral

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – The sudden and unexpected outage of a crucial tracking radar that is mandatory to insure public safety, has forced the scrub of a pair of launches planned for this week from Cape Canaveral, FL, that are vital to US National Security, United Launch Alliance, SpaceX and NASA.

The tracking radar is an absolutely essential asset for the Eastern Range that oversees all launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center on the Florida Space Coast.

The pair of liftoffs for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and SpaceX/NASA had been slated just days apart on March 25 and March 30.

Urgent repairs are in progress.

Both launches have now been postponed for a minimum of 3 weeks, according to a statement I received from the 45th Space Wing of the US Air Force that controls the critical launch control systems, communications, computers and radar elements.

An Atlas V rocket carrying the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office and a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon cargo freightor bound for the International Space Station (ISS) were both in the midst of the final stages of intensive pre-launch processing activities this week.

The Eastern range radar was apparently knocked out by a fire on March 24, a short time after the early morning rollout of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral.

“An investigation revealed a tracking radar experienced an electrical short, overheating the unit and rendering it inoperable,” according to today’s explanatory statement from the USAF 45th Space Wing.

“The outage resulted in an inability to meet minimum public safety requirements needed for flight, so the launch was postponed.”

A SpaceX spokesperson likewise confirmed to me that their launch was also on hold.

Artwork for Super Secret NROL-67 payload launching on Atlas V rocket. Credit: NRO/ULA
Artwork for Super Secret NROL-67 payload launching on Atlas V rocket. Credit: NRO/ULA

A fully functional tracking radar is an absolute requirement to ensure the success and safety of any launch.

The range radar must also be functioning perfectly in order to destroy the rocket in a split second in the event it veers off course to the nearby heavily populated areas along the Space Coast.

Myself and other space journalists had been working at Pad 41 on March 24 and setting up our remote cameras to capture spectacular up close views of the blastoff that had then been scheduled for March 25.

Atlas V rocket and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on March 24, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Atlas V rocket and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on March 24, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Insufficient maintenance and antiquated equipment due to a lack of US government funding and investment in infrastructure may be implicated.

The range outage for such an extended period of time reveals a clear vulnerability in US National Security planning.

The Air Force is also looking into the feasibility of reviving an inactive radar as a short term quick fix.

But in order to use the retired backup system, it will also have to re-validated to ensure utility and that all launch control and public safety requirements are fully met.

Simultaneously, the engineering team is recalculating launch trajectories and range requirements.

Such a revalidation process will also require an unknown period of time.

The full impact of putting these two launches on hold for the NRO and SpaceX is not known at this time.

An upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon cargo capsule bound for the ISS is slated to launch on March 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL.   File photo.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
An upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon cargo capsule bound for the ISS is slated to launch on March 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. File photo. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Furthermore, the USAF will need to determine the downstream scheduling impact on the very busy manifest of all of the remaining launches throughout 2014 – averaging more than one per month.

Neither the NRO nor NASA and SpaceX have announced firm new launch dates.

The earliest possible Atlas V launch date appears to be sometime in mid-April, but that assessment can change on a dime.

In the meantime, personnel from the 45th Space Wing will continue to work diligently to repair the range radar equipment as quickly as possible.

ULA engineers also rolled the Atlas V rocket back to its processing hanger until a new launch target date is set.

SpaceX likewise awaits a target launch date for the Dragon CRS-3 cargo mission packed with some 5000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the six man station crew.

It seems likely that the next Orbital Sciences Antares/Cygnus launch to the ISS will also have to be postponed since Dragon and Cygnus berth at the same station port.

Space journalists and photographers pose at Launch Pad 41 during camera setup with the Atlas V rocket slated to loft super secret NROL-67 spy satellite to orbit. Ken Kremer/Universe Today at right.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Space journalists and photographers pose at Launch Pad 41 during camera setup with the Atlas V rocket slated to loft super secret NROL-67 spy satellite to orbit; Ben Cooper, Don Hludiak, Mike Howard, Mike Deep, Matthew Travis, Hap Griffin, Jeff Seibert, Alan Walters, Julian Leek, Ken Kremer/Universe Today at right. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Atlas V NROL 67, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Learn more at Ken’s upcoming presentations at the NEAF astro/space convention, NY on April 12/13 and at Washington Crossing State Park, NJ on April 6. Also at the Quality Inn Kennedy Space Center, Titusville, FL, March 29.

Ken Kremer

ISS, NASA and US National Security dependent on Russian & Ukrainian Rocketry Amidst Crimean Crisis

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.

Expedition 38 crew members proudly sport their national flags in this March 2014 picture from the International Space Station. Pictured (clockwise from top center) are Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, commander; Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy, NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins, and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, all flight engineers. Credit: NASA
Expedition 38 crew members proudly sport their national flags in this March 2014 picture from the International Space Station. Pictured (clockwise from top center) are Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, commander; Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy, NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins, and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, all flight engineers. Credit: NASA

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.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden discusses NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden discusses NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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.

Many NASA probes also used the Atlas V including Curiosity, MAVEN, Juno and TDRS to name just a few.

NASA’s Mars bound MAVEN spacecraft launches atop Atlas V booster at 1:28 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 18, 2013. Image taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Mars bound MAVEN spacecraft launches atop Atlas V booster at 1:28 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 18, 2013. Image taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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.

Antares rocket raised at NASA Wallops launch pad 0A bound for the ISS on Sept 18, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Antares rocket raised at NASA Wallops launch pad 0A bound for the ISS on Sept 18, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

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.

Next Generation SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Next Generation SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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.

map_of_ukraine

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.

Ken Kremer

Atlantis thunders to life at Launch Pad 39 A at KSC on July 8.   Credit: Ken Kremer
Final Space Shuttle liftoff marks start of US dependency on Russia for human access to space.
Space Shuttle Atlantis thunders to life at Launch Pad 39 A at KSC on July 8, 2011. Credit: Ken Kremer

NROL-15 Spysat and Delta 4 Heavy – Cape Launch Photo Gallery

Image caption: An upgraded Delta 4 Heavy rocket and super secret spy satellite roar off pad 37 on June 29, 2012 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert/wired4space.com

Here’s a launch photo gallery showing the blastoff of the NROL-15 top secret intelligence gathering satellite atop a mighty Delta 4 Heavy booster from colleagues with a variety of perspectives on 29 June 2012 from Cape Canaveral, Florida

The spy satellite was lofted to orbit by the United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy booster for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

Sometime in 2014 the first space bound Orion capsule will blastoff atop a Delta 4 Heavy booster.

Delta 4 Heavy rocket and super secret spy satellite roar off pad 37 on June 29, 2012 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert/wired4space.com

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Jun 29, 2012 Delta 4 Heavy NROL-15 launch photos – Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

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Delta 4 Heavy rocket with top secret spy satellite thunders off Pad 37 on June 29, 2012 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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Delta 4 Heavy rocket and super secret spy satellite roar off pad 37 on June 29, 2012 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert/wired4space.com

Ken Kremer

Stupendous ‘Spysat Sunrise’ at the Cape

Image caption: ‘Spysat Sunrise’ and Delta 4 Heavy booster at Cape Canaveral, Florida prior to successful June 29, 2012 blastoff from Pad 37 at 9:15 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer

Some lucky Florida Space Coast spectators were unexpectedly treated to a glorious “Spysat Sunrise” when the June 29 liftoff of the powerful Delta 4 Heavy booster lofting a super secret spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) was postponed several hours from its originally scheduled predawn launch time.

The sight of the orange and white triple barreled Delta booster and the multi hued sunrise show lasting several minutes was gorgeous beyond compare.

Image caption: ‘Spysat Sunrise’ and Delta 4 Heavy booster at Cape Canaveral, Florida prior to successful June 29, 2012 blastoff from Pad 37 at 9:15 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer

As a result of the sudden, last minute launch time postponement amidst blistering Florida heat in the middle of mosquito infested waters, some folks got a super “consolation prize” – a magnificent sunrise behind the Delta 4 Heavy rocket launch pad at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

That is for those who were fortunate enough to be unwittingly watching from exactly the right spot at the right time. The photos were shot from about 3 miles away on the NASA Causeway.

Image caption: An upgraded Delta 4 Heavy rocket and super secret spy satellite roar off Pad 37 on June 29, 2012 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

The goal of the mission was to deliver the NROL-15 satellite to orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to conduct unspecified intelligence gathering operations for US military forces located around the globe.

Read more about the United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Spy satellite launch in my mission related articles starting here as well as the prior week’s June 20 NROL-38 NRO spysat launch – here and here.

Ken Kremer

Super Secret Spy Satellite Soars Spectacularly to Space on Delta 4 Heavy Booster

Image caption: An upgraded Delta 4 Heavy rocket and super secret spy satellite roar off pad 37 on June 29, 2012 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

A super secret spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) soared spectacularly to space today (June 29) aboard a Delta 4 Heavy Booster – America’s most powerful rocket following the retirement of NASA’s venerable Space Shuttle Orbiters.

Liftoff of the mammoth Delta 4 Heavy rocket – composed of a trio of liquid fueled common core boosters – finally came at 9:15 a.m. EDT about 3 hours late after a variety of technical issues halted the countdown three times at less than 4 minutes from liftoff from Space Launch Complex 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Heavy rains and flooding from Tropical Storm Debby had forced a 1 day launch delay from June 28.

The 232 foot tall United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta lifted off into a magnificent clear blue sky atop the rumbling thunder of three upgraded boosters strapped together side by side and it gradually arced over to the East on the way to orbit.

Both side attached boosters jettisoned as planned. After the second stage engine ignited and the payload fairing separated, the flight went into a preplanned communications black out for the remainder of the flight to orbit and the entire intelligence mission ahead for the hush, hush NROL-15 satellite.

“Today’s successful launch of the NROL-15 mission is the third of four launches for the NRO this year and the second EELV launch for the NRO in just nine days,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Mission Operations. “We congratulate the combined NRO , U.S. Air Force and ULA team along with our mission partners for their continued focus on mission success as we deliver the critical capabilities to support the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.”

Just last week on June 20, a ULA Atlas 5 booster lofted the secret NROL-38 satellite for the NRO.

This was only the 6th launch of the Delta 4 Heavy booster and the inaugural flight featuring the upgraded RS-68A Liquid Hydrogen/Liquid Oxygen first stage engines. Each improved engine delivers some 797,000 pounds of thrust vs 758,000 pounds in the prior version – an increase of 39,000 pounds. A single RL 10 engine powered the second stage.

“The upgraded Delta IV Heavy vehicle was developed with an extremely thorough and comprehensive system engineering process by the ULA and Pratt-Whitney Rocketdyne teams, along with substantial involvement by our U.S. government customers,” said Sponnick. “Congratulations to the entire team on today’s successful inaugural flight of the upgraded Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle and the RS-68A engine.”

Ken Kremer

Mighty Delta 4 Heavy Rocket and Clandestine Satellite Poised at Pad

Image caption: The Delta 4 Heavy rocket and Super secret payload stand poised for launch at 6:13 a.m. EDT on June 29, 2012 following retraction of the mobile service tower. Credit: Ken Kremer

A mighty triple-barreled Delta 4 Heavy rocket with a clandestine military satellite perhaps the size of Hubble was unveiled this evening (June 28) at a seaside launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The 232 foot tall rocket is poised to blast off at 6:13 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The exact launch window, like everything else about the classified mission and the NROL-15 spy satellite is top secret.

The mobile service tower was retracted from around the absolutely gorgeous white and orange colored rocket starting around 8:30 p.m. and the super secret spy satellite being launched for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) – see my photos.

The launch was delayed a day by the lingering devastation caused by Tropical Storm Debby.

Image caption: Delta 4 Heavy rocket and top secret NRO payload are poised for launch on June 29. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

The United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy is flying for the first time with upgraded RS-68A first stage engines, each of which delivers 720,000 pounds of thrust.

This will be the 6th launch of the Delta 4 Heavy – now the most powerful rocket in the US fleet following the shutdown of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program.

As of 12:45 a.m. June 29 , the countdown is now underway ! Fueling will commence shortly. Stay tuned for a post – launch report

Ken Kremer

Debby Dousing Delta 4 Heavy Launch Hopes for June 28

Image Caption: National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) spy satellite arrives at Cape Canaveral Launch Pad 37 for mounting on top Delta 4 Heavy Rocket slated for June 28, 2012 blastoff. Credit: United Launch Alliance
See Photo Gallery below

Debby is doing a real number on vast swaths of Florida, dumping up to 15 inches of rain, unleashing deadly tornadoes and dousing hopes of launching a mighty triple barreled Delta IV Heavy rocket on Thursday morning, June 28, with a super secret spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

Tropical Storm Debby has destroyed homes, killed at least 1 person and will wreak havoc as it tracks across central Florida from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast over the next two days – just north of Cape Canaveral, Florida and the Delta 4 Heavy launch pad at Space Launch Complex 37.

The last Delta 4 Heavy to blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov 21, 2010. Credit: Alan Walters – awaltersphoto.com

The odds of launching the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta 4 Heavy on June 28 have dropped to just 30 percent favorable. The outlook improves slightly to 40 % favorable on Friday, June 29 according to the official Air Force weather forecast.

The launch window for Thursday’s ULA Delta 4 Heavy launch stretches from 6:16 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and comes just 8 days after the last spy satellite blasted off on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral on June 20 – launch story here.


Image Caption: Fog and heavy rain obscure view of triple barreled Delta 4 Heavy rocket protected inside Mobile Gantry from outside high security perimeter gate at Launch Pad 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

The clandestine NROL-15 payload was bolted atop the Delta 4 Heavy booster several weeks ago.

See the photo gallery below provided to Universe Today showing the shrouded upper stage being hoisted on top of the booster.

This will be only the 6th launch of the 232 foot tall Delta 4 Heavy booster and the first one to feature the upgraded RS-68A first stage engines, delivering 702,000 pounds of thrust each.

A suspect vent relief rocket valve was successfully changed out by technicians over the weekend and will not delay the launch, ULA spokesperson Jessica Rye told Universe Today.

The powerful Delta 4 Heavy rocket and NROL-15 payload are due to be unveiled at pad 37 on Wednesday evening, June 27- depending on Debby !. .

Ken Kremer

Photo Gallery: NROL-15 Spy satellite delivery and mounting atop Delta 4 Heavy Rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station – Space Launch Complex 37. Credit: United Launch Alliance