Launch of GOES-R Transformational Weather Satellite Likely Delayed by Hurricane Matthew

The NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite - R Series) being processed at Astrotech Space Operations, in Titusville, FL, in advance of the planned launch on a ULS Atlas V on Nov 4, 2016.  GOES-R will be America’s most advanced weather satellite. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series) being processed at Astrotech Space Operations, in Titusville, FL, in advance of the planned launch on a ULA Atlas V likely delayed from Nov 4, 2016 by Hurricane Matthew. GOES-R will be America’s most advanced weather satellite. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Next month’s launch of GOES-R – a new and advanced transformational weather satellite that will vastly enhance the quality, speed and accuracy of weather forecasting – will likely be delayed a few days due to lingering storm related effects of deadly Hurricane Matthew on launch preparations at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Universe Today confirmed with launch provider United Launch Alliance (ULA).

“The GOES-R launch will likely be delayed due to Hurricane Matthew,” ULA spokeswoman Lyn Chassagne told Universe Today.

Liftoff of the NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series) weather satellite atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket had been scheduled for Nov. 4 at 5:40 p.m. from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

GOES-R is the first in a new series of American’s most powerful and most advanced next generation weather observation satellites.

It’s ironic that awful weather is impacting the launch of this critical weather satellite.

It’s not known how long any postponement would be – perhaps only a few days since preliminary indications are that the base suffered only minor damage and there are no reports of major damage.

“Our teams are still doing a damage assessment. So we don’t have a status about all of our infrastructure yet,” Chassagne told me.

“A preliminary assessment shows that we have some minor damage to a few of our facilities. We had no rockets on the pads. So there is no damage to hardware.”

Damage assessment teams are evaluating the launch pad and launch facilities in detail right now.

“Since we still have emergency response teams in assessing, we don’t know how long the delay will be until we get those assessments.”

The NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite - R Series) being processed at Astrotech Space Operations, in Titusville, FL, in advance of the planned launch on a ULA Atlas V likely delayed from Nov 4, 2016 by Hurricane Matthew.  GOES-R will be America’s most advanced weather satellite. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series) being processed at Astrotech Space Operations, in Titusville, FL, in advance of the planned launch on a ULA Atlas V likely delayed from Nov 4, 2016 by Hurricane Matthew. GOES-R will be America’s most advanced weather satellite. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The looming threat of a direct hit on Cape Canaveral and KSC from the Category 4 storm Hurricane Matthew on Friday, Oct. 7, forced the closure of both facilities before the storm hit. They remained closed this weekend except to emergency personal.

“Got in today to assess. Light to moderate damage to our facilities. No damage to any flight assets,” tweeted ULA CEO Tory Bruno.

The base closures therefore also forced a halt to launch preparations at the Cape and pad 41.

The storm grazed by the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) and the major population centers along the Florida Space Coast with wind gusts up to 107 mph – rather than making a direct impact as feared.

“Hurricane Matthew passed Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center …. with sustained winds of 90 mph with gusts to 107 mph,” on Friday, NASA officials reported.

The storm passed “the space center about 26 miles off the tip of Cape Canaveral.”

Cat 4 Hurricane Matthew track during the late evening of 6 Oct 2016.  Credit: NASA/NOAA
Cat 4 Hurricane Matthew track during the late evening of 6 Oct 2016. Credit: NASA/NOAA

The launch ULA facilities are now being thoroughly inspected before any launch preparation can proceed.

The satellite is in the final stages of preparation at the Astrotech Space Operations Facility in Titusville, FL as I recently observed during an up close visit in the High Bay cleanroom.

Check out this amazing rooftop video showing the high winds pummeling Titusville during Hurricane Matthew just a few miles away from Astrotech and the GOES-R satellite – from my space colleague Jeff Seibert.

Video caption: Before we bailed out on Thursday afternoon, I clamped one of my launch pad remote cameras to the power service post on our roof. Wind is blocked a lot by trees but none fell on the house. The highest recorded wind speed was 51mph at 7:30AM on Oct. 7, 2016. The minimum barometric pressure was 28.79″ from 8:20 – 9 AM. We got 5.9″ of rain. The ridge line faces due east. We never lost power. Credit: Jeff Seibert

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for GOES-R.

United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid, retrieve at least two ounces of surface material and return it to Earth for study.  Liftoff was at 7:05 p.m. EDT on September 8, 2016 in this remote camera view taken from inside the launch pad perimeter.  Note the newly install crew access arm and white room for astronaut flights atop Atlas starting in early 2018.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid on September 8, 2016. GOES-R launch on an Atlas V planned for Nov. 4 is likely delayed due to Hurricane Matthew. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Whenever it does launch, GOES-R will blast off on a ULA Atlas V in the very powerful 541 configuration, augmented by four solid rocket booster on the first stage.

It will be launched to a Geostationary orbit some 22,300 miles above Earth.

But ULA has not yet begun assembling the Atlas V booster inside the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at SLC-41 due to the storm.

Because of Hurricane Matthew, the first stage arrival had to be postponed. The second stage is already in port at the Delta operations center and being integrated.

“The first stage booster is not yet at the Cape,” Chassagne confirmed.

However, conditions at the Cape have improved sufficiently for the US Air Force to clear its shipment into port, as of this evening.

“We just cleared CCAFS to be able to accept a booster for the GOES-R launch–how appropriate that GOES is a weather satellite!” wrote Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, commander of the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, in a Facebook update late today, Oct. 9.

“We are returning to full mission capability and our status as the World’s Premier Gateway to Space.”

Artists concept for  NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite - R Series) advanced weather satellite in Earth orbit. Credit: NASA/NOAA
Artists concept for NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series) advanced weather satellite in Earth orbit. Credit: NASA/NOAA

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

GOES-R logo.  Credit: NASA/NOAA
GOES-R logo. Credit: NASA/NOAA

Bigelow and ULA Partner to Launch Commercial Space Habitat in 2020

Interior schematic view of Bigelow Aerospace B330 expandable module. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace
 Interior schematic view of Bigelow Aerospace B330 expandable module. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

Interior schematic view of Bigelow Aerospace B330 expandable module. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

Bigelow Aerospace and United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced they are joining forces to develop and launch the world’s first commercial space habitat to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) by 2020 – potentially as a huge and revolutionary new addition to the International Space Station (ISS).

The expandable habitat will be based on the Bigelow Aerospace B330 module and would be carried to orbit on the most powerful version of ULA’s venerable Atlas V rocket.

Robert Bigelow, founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace, and Tory Bruno, ULA president and CEO announced the partnership on the fully commercial space habitat during a joint media briefing held at the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado on April 11.

“We could not be more pleased than to partner with Bigelow Aerospace and reserve a launch slot on our manifest for this revolutionary mission,” said Tory Bruno, ULA president and CEO.

The B330 boasts an interior volume of 330 cubic meters (12,000 cu ft). It measures 57 feet (17.3 m) in length, weighs 20 tons and offers a design life span of 20 years.

If NASA agrees to attach the B330 to the ISS, the stations habitable volume would grow by a whopping 30% in one giant step.

“The alliance represents the first-ever commercial partnership between a launch provider and a habitat provider,” according to ULA.

The advantage of expandable habitats is that they offer a much better volume to weight ratio compared to standard rigid structures, such as all of the current ISS pressurized modules.

The station based B330 concept is named XBASE or Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement.

Schematic of the Bigelow Aerospace B330 expandable module tucked inside the fairing of a ULA ?AtlasV? 552 rocket.  Credit: ULA
Schematic of the Bigelow Aerospace B330 expandable module tucked inside the fairing of a ULA Atlas V 552 rocket. Credit: ULA

The additional volume would enable a significant increase in the orbiting outposts ability to support research and development operations and manufacturing processes for NASA and commercial users.

Bigelow further views the B330 and follow on modules as a potential destination for space tourism and a beneficial component for human missions to the Moon and Mars.

“We are exploring options for the location of the initial B330 including discussions with NASA on the possibility of attaching it to the International Space Station (ISS),” said Robert Bigelow, founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace.

“In that configuration, the B330 will enlarge the station’s volume by 30% and function as a multipurpose testbed in support of NASA’s exploration goals as well as provide significant commercial opportunities. The working name for this module is XBASE or Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement.”

Bigelow said his firm plans to build two B330 modules by 2020.

The B330 would be tucked inside the cavernous payload fairing of the Atlas V which would launch in the 552 configuration with 5 meter diameter fairing with 5 solid rocket booster attached to the first stage and a dual engine Centaur second stage.

Launch of Bigelow B330 expandable habitat module tucked inside ULA Atlas V payload fairing. Credit: ULA
Launch of Bigelow B330 expandable habitat module tucked inside ULA Atlas V payload fairing. Credit: ULA

“When looking for a vehicle to launch our large, unique spacecraft, ULA provides a heritage of solid mission success, schedule certainty and a cost effective solution,” says Bigelow.

The SpaceX falcon 9 fairing is not big enough to house the B330.

“SpaceX, they do not have the capability with the fairing size that is necessary to accommodate the B330. So that is not even a choice,” Bigelow stated.

The B330 partnership announcement follows hot on the heels of last weeks successful launch of Bigelow’s experimental BEAM expandable module on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on a mission to the ISS on April 8.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is an experimental expandable capsule that attaches to the space station.  Credits: Bigelow Aerospace, LLC
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is an experimental expandable capsule that attaches to the space station. Credits: Bigelow Aerospace, LLC

BEAM is tucked inside the rear truck section of the SpaceX Dragon now berthed at the station. It will soon be attached to a side port on the Harmony module.

“This innovative and game-changing advance will dramatically increase opportunities for space research in fields like materials, medicine and biology,” said Bruno.

“It enables destinations in space for countries, corporations and even individuals far beyond what is available today, effectively democratizing space. We can’t begin to imagine the future potential of affordable real estate in space.”

The B330 could also function as a free flyer but would work best at the station, Bigelow noted at the briefing.

Both of the commercial space taxis being developed under NASA’s commercial crew program (CCP) could dock at the B330; the Boeing Starliner and the SpaceX crew Dragon, Bigelow stated.

Multiple B330 modules could also be joined together in orbit to form a free flying commercial space station.

United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket – powered by Russian made RD-180 engines – and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload poised for launch at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, in March 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
File photo of Atlas V rocket in with 5 meter diameter payload fairing and 5 solid rocket boosters following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about SpaceX, ULA, commercial space, NASA Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, ISS, Orbital ATK, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ – http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html

ULA Skips Competitive Bid for Air Force GPS Launch Contract, Door Opens to SpaceX

Atlas V rocket - powered by Russian made RD-180 engines - 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
File photo of Atlas V rocket – powered by Russian made RD-180 engines – 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

United Launch Alliance (ULA) has decided to skip the bidding competition for launch of the next generation U.S. Air Force GPS military navigation satellites, a company spokesperson confirmed to Universe Today, meaning that rival SpaceX is set to win its first military launch contract as the only other certified contract contender.

Since bids for the new GPS launch contract – which were the first to be opened by the military to a competitive bidding process since 2006 – were due on Monday, Nov. 16, the door has opened for SpaceX to apparently prevail with the launch services contract, by default, since they are the only other American company certified to launch U.S. Air Force military satellites. Continue reading “ULA Skips Competitive Bid for Air Force GPS Launch Contract, Door Opens to SpaceX”

Atlas V Streaks to Orbit on 100th Successful Mission for ULA with Mexico’s Morelos-3

100th United Launch Alliance (ULA) rocket streaks to orbit with Atlas V booster carrying the Morelos-3 mission for Mexico from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 6:28 a.m. EDT, Oct. 2, 2015 as seen from Melbourne Beach pier, Florida.  Credit: Julian Leek
100th United Launch Alliance (ULA) rocket streaks to orbit with Atlas V booster carrying the Morelos-3 mission for Mexico from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 6:28 a.m. EDT, Oct. 2, 2015 as seen from Melbourne Beach pier, Florida. Credit: Julian Leek
See launch photo and video gallery below

United Launch Alliance (ULA) celebrated an incredible milestone today, Oct. 2, with the successful launch of the firms 100th mission on an Atlas V rocket carrying Mexico’s next generation Morelos-3 satellite to provide advanced telecommunications for education and health programs for rural communities and secure communications for Mexican national security needs.

The spectacular predawn liftoff finally took place at 6:28 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida – after nearly being derailed by a Continue reading “Atlas V Streaks to Orbit on 100th Successful Mission for ULA with Mexico’s Morelos-3”

Aerojet-Rocketdyne Seeks to Buy United Launch Alliance for $2 Billion

America’s premier rocket launch services provider United 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.

Aerojet-Rocketdyne currently is a major supplier to ULA by providing first and second stage engines for use in the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. They also manufacture the Space Shuttle Main Engines now being repurposed as the RS-25 to serve as first stage engines for NASA’s mammoth new SLS deep space rocket.

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.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-7 mission for the U.S. Air Force launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on July 23, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-7 mission for the U.S. Air Force launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on July 23, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

But the recent emergence of rival SpaceX – founded by billionaire Elon Musk – with the lower cost Falcon 9 rocket and the end of the ULA’s launch monopoly for high value military and top secret spy satellites has the potential to undermine ULA’s long term business model and profitability. In May, the US Air Force certified the SpaceX Falcon 9 for national security payload launches.

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.

The Falcon 9 no longer enjoys a 100 percent success rate after the launch failure on June 28, 2015 on a critical NASA cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Atlas V will also serve as the launch vehicle for Boeing’s new ‘Starliner’ space taxi to transport astronauts to the ISS as soon as 2017 – detailed in my onsite story here.

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.

Vulcan - United Launch Alliance (ULA)  next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019.  Credit: ULA
Vulcan – United Launch Alliance (ULA) next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019. Credit: ULA

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.

Ken Kremer

Genesis of ULA’s New Vulcan Rocket Borne of Fierce Commercial and Political Pressures: Interview

Fierce commercial and international political pressures have forced the rapid development of the new Vulcan launcher family recently announced by rocket maker United Launch Alliance (ULA). Vulcan’s “genesis” and development was borne of multiple unrelenting forces on ULA and is now absolutely essential and critical for its “transformation and survival in a competitive environment” moving forward, according to Dr. George Sowers, ULA Vice President for Advanced Concepts and Technology, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today.

“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.

Faced with the combined challenges of a completely changed business and political environment emanating powerfully from new space upstart SpaceX offering significantly reduced launch costs, and continuing uncertainty over the future supply of the Russian-made RD-180 workhorse rocket engines that power ULA’s venerable Atlas V rocket, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Sowers and ULA’s new CEO Tory Bruno were tasked with rapidly resolving these twin threats to the firms future well being – which also significantly impacts directly on America’s national security.

“Our current plan is to have the new Vulcan rocket flying by 2019,” Sowers stated.

Whereas ULA enjoyed a virtual US launch monopoly for many years, those days are now history thanks to SpaceX.

Vulcan - United Launch Alliance (ULA)’s next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019.  Credit: ULA
Vulcan – United Launch Alliance (ULA) next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019. Credit: ULA

The Vulcan launcher was created in response to the commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and it will combine the best features of ULA’s existing unmanned Atlas V and Delta IV booster product lines as well as being revamped with new and innovative American-made first stage engines that will eventually be reusable.

It will meet and exceed the capabilities of ULA’s current stable of launchers, including the Delta IV Heavy which recently launched NASA’s maiden Orion crew module on an unmanned test flight in Dec. 2014.

“We at ULA were faced with how do we take our existing products and transform them into a single fleet that enables us to do the entire range of missions on just one family of rockets.”

“So that was really the genesis of what we now call the “Vulcan” rocket. So this single family will be able to do everything [from medium to heavy lift],” Sowers told me.

Another requirement is that Vulcan’s manufacturing methodology be extremely efficient, slashing costs to make it cost competitive with the Space X Falcon 9. Sowers said the launcher would sell “for less than $100 million” at the base level.

“Vulcan will be the highest-performing, most cost-efficient rocket on the market. It will open up new opportunities for the nation’s use of space,” says ULA CEO Tory Bruno.

In its initial configuration Vulcan’s first stage will be powered by a revolutionary new class of cost effective and wholly domestic engines dubbed the BE-4, produced by Blue Origin.

It can be augmented by up to six solid rocket boosters, to propel high value payloads on missions ranging from low Earth orbit to interplanetary destinations for NASA, private industry and vital US national security interests.

Vulcan will also blast off with astronaut crews aboard the Boeing CST-100 space taxi bound for the International Space Station (ISS) in the early 2020s.

Cutaway diagram of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket powered by BE-4 first stage engines, six solid rocket motors and a 5 meter diameter payload fairing. Credit ULA
Cutaway diagram of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket powered by BE-4 first stage engines, six solid rocket motors and a 5 meter diameter payload fairing. Credit ULA

Further upgrades including a powerful new upper stage called ACES, will be phased in down the road as launches of ULA’s existing rocket families wind down, to alleviate any schedule slips.

“Because rocket design is hard and the rocket business is tough we are planning an overlap period between our existing rockets and the new Vulcan rocket,” Sowers explained. “That will account for any delays in development and other issues in the transition process to the new rocket.”

ULA was formed in 2006 as a 50:50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that combined their existing expendable rocket fleet families – the Atlas V and Delta IV – under one roof.

Development of the two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV’s) was originally funded by the U.S. Air Force to provide two independent and complimentary launch capabilities thereby offering assured access to space for America’s most critical military reconnaissance satellites gathering intelligence for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), DOD and the most senior US military and government leaders.

Since 2006, SpaceX (founded by billionaire Elon Musk) has emerged on the space scene as a potent rival offering significantly lower cost launches compared to ULA and other launch providers in the US and overseas – and captured a significant and growing share of the international launch market for its American-made Falcon rocket family.

And last year to top that all off, Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, who is in charge of space and defense industries, threatened to “ban Washington from using Russian-made [RD-180] rocket engines [used in the Atlas V rocket], which the US has used to deliver its military satellites into orbit.”

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, March 12, 2015, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
ULA Atlas V rocket first stage is powered by Russian-made RD-180 engines.
United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, March 12, 2015, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

“ULA was formed eight years ago as a government regulated monopoly focused on US government launches. Now eight years later the environment is changing,” Sowers told me.

How did ULA respond to the commercial and political challenges and transform?

“So there are a lot of things we had to do structurally to make that transformation. One of the key ones is that when ULA was formed, the government was very concerned about having assured access to space for national security launches,” Sowers explained.

“In their mind that meant having two independent rocket systems that could essentially do the same jobs. So we have both the Atlas V and the Delta IV. But in a competitive environment you can well imagine that that requirement drives your costs significantly higher than they need to be.”

ULA actually offered three rocket families after the merger, when only one was really needed.

“So our first conclusion on how to be competitive was how do we go from supporting three rocket families – including the Delta II – off of 6 launch pads, to our ultimate aim of getting down to just 1 rocket family of off just 2 pads – one on each coast. So, that is the most cost effective structure that we could come up with and the most competitive.”

Developing a new first stage engine not subject to international tensions was another primary impetus.

“The other big objective that was always in our minds, but that became much higher priority in April 2014 when Russia decided to annex Crimea, is that the RD-180 rocket engine that became our workhorse on Atlas, now became politically untenable.”

“So the other main objective of Vulcan is to re-engine [the first stage of] our fleet with an American engine, the Blue Origin BE-4.”

The RD-180’s will be replaced with a pair of BE-4 engines from Blue Origin, the highly secretive aerospace firm founded by Jeff Bezos, billionaire founder of Amazon. The revolutionary BE-4 engines are fueled by liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen and will produce about 1.1 million pounds of thrust vs. about 900,000 pounds of thrust for the RD-180, a significant enhancement in thrust.

“The Blue Origin BE-4 is the primary engine [for Vulcan]. ULA is co-investing with Blue Origin in that engine.”

Although the BE-4 is ULA’s primary choice to replace the RD-180, ULA is also investing in development of a backup engine, the AR-1 from Aerojet-Rocketdyne, in case the BE-4 faces unexpected delays.

“As I said, rocket development is hard and risky. So we have a backup plan. That is with Aerojet-Rocketdyne and their AR-1. And we are investing in that engine as well.”

More on the Vulcan, BE-4, reusability and more upcoming in part 2.

ULA concept for SMART reuse capability for the new Vulcan rocket involves eventual midair recovery and reuse of the first stage engines.  Credit: ULA
ULA concept for SMART reuse capability for the new Vulcan rocket involves eventual midair recovery and reuse of the first stage engines. Credit: ULA

Meanwhile, the next commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 is due to blastoff this Sunday, June 28, on the Dragon CRS-7 resupply mission to the ISS.

Watch for my onsite reports from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer
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Learn more about ULA, SpaceX, Europa, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Jun 25-28: “SpaceX launch, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Antares and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Launch pad remote camera view.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

You Can Vote to Name America’s New Rocket from ULA

Help ULA name America’s next rocket to space. Credit: ULA
Voting Details below
Watch ULA’s March 25 Delta Launch Live – details below
Update 3/26: 2 new names have been added to the voting list – Zeus and Vulcan !
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United Launch Alliance (ULA) is asking the public for your help in naming their new American made rocket, now under development that “represents the future of space”- and will replace the firms current historic lines of Atlas and Delta rocket families that began launching back near the dawn of the space age.

Eagle, Freedom or GalaxyOne – those are the names to choose from for the next two weeks, from now until April 6.

UPDATE 3/26: 2 new names have been added to the voting list – Zeus and Vulcan !

ULA says the names were selected from a list of over 400 names submitted earlier this year by ULA’s 3400 employees and many space enthusiasts.

ULA has set up a simple voting system whereby you can vote for your favorite name via text or an online webpage.

Currently dubbed the “Next Generation Launch System,” or NGLS, ULA’s new president and CEO Tory Bruno is set to unveil the next generation rockets design and name at the National Space Symposium on April 13 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“ULA’s new rocket represents the future of space – innovative, affordable and reliable,” said Bruno, in a statement.

“More possibilities in space means more possibilities here on earth. This is such a critical time for space travel and exploration and we’re excited to bring all of America with us on this journey into the future.”

The NGLS is ULA’s response to what’s shaping up as a no holds barred competition with SpaceX for future launch contracts where only the innovative and those who dramatically cut the cost of access to space will survive.

The first flight of the NGLS is slated for 2019.

Here’s how you can cast your vote for America’s next rocket to April 6, 2015:

Visit the website: http://bit.ly/rocketvote

OR

Voters can text 22333 to submit a vote for their favorite name. The following key can be used to text a vote:

• ULA1 for “Eagle”
• ULA2 for “Freedom”
• ULA3 for “GalaxyOne”

3/26 Update: Zeus and Vulcan have been added to the voting list

One small step for ULA, one giant leap for space exploration. Vote to name America’s next ride to space: Eagle, Freedom, or GalaxyOne? #rocketvote http://bit.ly/rocketvote
One small step for ULA, one giant leap for space exploration. Vote to name America’s next ride to space: Eagle, Freedom, or GalaxyOne? #rocketvote http://bit.ly/rocketvote

“Name America’s next ride to space. Vote early, vote often … ” says Bruno.

I have already voted – early and often.

Over 11,000 votes were tallied in just the first day.

Currently ULA is the nation’s premier launch provider, launching at a rate of about once per month. 13 launches are planned for 2015- as outlined in my earlier article here.

But ULA faces stiff and relentless pricing and innovative competition from NewSpace upstart SpaceX, founded by billionaire Elon Musk.

NGLS is ULA’s answer to SpaceX – they must compete in order to survive.

To date ULA has accomplished a 100 percent mission success for 94 launches since the firms founding in 2006 as a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. They have successfully launched numerous NASA, national security and commercial payloads into orbit and beyond.

Planetary missions launched for NASA include the Mars rovers and landers Phoenix and Curiosity, Pluto/New Horizons, Juno, GRAIL, LRO and LCROSS.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, March 12, 2015, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
ULA’s new rocket will launch from this pad in 2019
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, March 12, 2015, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

ULA’s most recent launch for NASA involved the $1.1 Billion Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission comprised of four formation flying satellites which blasted to Earth orbit atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, during a spectacular nighttime blastoff on March 12, 2015. Read my onsite reports – here and here.

“Space launch affects everyone, every day, and our goal in letting America name its next rocket is to help all Americans imagine the future of endless possibilities created by affordable space launch,” Bruno added.

NGLS will include some heritage design from the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, but will feature many new systems and potentially some reusable systems – to be outlined by Bruno on April 13.

ULA plans to phase out the Delta IV around 2019 when the current contracts are concluded. The Atlas V will continue for a transitional period.

The Atlas V is also the launcher for Boeing’s CST-100 manned space taxi due to first launch in 2017.

NGLS will launch from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, the same pad as for the Atlas V, as well as from Vandenberg AFB, Calif.

ULA’s next Delta IV launch with GPS IIF-9 is scheduled shortly for Wednesday, March 25, with liftoff at 2:36 p.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral.

Live webcast begins at 2:06 p.m. Live link here – http://www.ulalaunch.com/webcast.aspx

Vote now!

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Tory Bruno, ULA President and CEO, speaks about the ULA launch of NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission on Delta IV Heavy rocket in the background at the Delta IV launch complex 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Tory Bruno, ULA President and CEO, speaks about the ULA launch of NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission on Delta IV Heavy rocket in the background at the Delta IV launch complex 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com