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

X-37B Air Force Space Plane Launches on 4th Mystery Military Mission and Solar Sailing Test

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.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

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.”

United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch of USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek
United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch of USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek

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.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

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.”

US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

Launch of the X-37B spaceplane on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA
Launch of the X-37B spaceplane on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT today, Wednesday, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT today, Wednesday, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA

Air Force X-37B Spaceplane Launches on May 20 with Military, NASA and LightSail Payloads: Watch Live

Fourth flight of the secretive U.S. Air Force X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is set for blastoff on May 20, 2015 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Photo: Boeing
Story updated with further details and photos[/caption]

All systems are currently “GO” for the fourth launch of the US Air Force’s secretive unmanned, X-37B military space plane this Wednesday, May 20, on a flight combining both US national security experimental payloads as well as civilian science experiments sponsored by NASA, US Universities, commercial companies, and the solar sailing LightSail test from the Planetary Society.

LightSail marks the first controlled, Earth orbit solar sail flight according to the non-profit Planetary Society. It will launch as a separate cubesat experiment. NASA also has an advanced materials science experiment flying aboard the robotically controlled X-37B.

The X-37B is set for blastoff atop a two stage United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 501 rocket on the AFSPC-5 mission under contract for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

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.

Although virtually all the goals of the X-37B program are shrouded in secrecy, some details on the national security objectives have emerged and there are several unclassified experiments flying along as secondary objectives on the rocket and space plane, among them are experiments for NASA and the Planetary Society.

LightSail launches aboard the X-37B on May 20, 2015.  Credit: The Planetary Society
LightSail launches aboard the X-37B on May 20, 2015. Credit: The Planetary Society

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.”

Liftoff will take place from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at some point during a four hour launch period that opens at 10:45 a.m. EDT and extends until 2:45 p.m. EDT on May 20.

ULA announced that the Launch Readiness Review was completed on Monday and everything is progressing normally toward the AFSPC-5 launch. The rocket is fully assembled and the space plane is encapsulated inside the 5 meter diameter payload fairing. It rolled out to the pad today, Tuesday, May 19.

You can watch the Atlas launch live via a ULA webcast here: http://www.ulalaunch.com

The ULA webcast begins at 10:45 a.m. EDT on May 20. The precise launch time is classified and won’t be announced until Wednesday morning.

The weather prognosis has improved markedly to a 60 percent chance of favorable weather conditions, up from only a 40 percent chance this past weekend.

The primary weather concerns are for violations of the launch weather rules related to cumulus clouds, surface electric fields, anvil clouds and lightning.

Launch officials are hopeful that acceptable launch conditions will occur sometime during the lengthy four hour launch window.

In the event of a 24 hour delay due to weather or technical issues, the outlook drops to only a 30% chance of favorable weather conditions during the launch window.

The OTV is somewhat like a miniature version of NASA’s space shuttles. Boeing has built two OTV vehicles.

2nd X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Successfully Completes 1st Flight by landing at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., on June 16, 2012.  The record setting mission lasted 469 days in earth orbit.  Designed to be launched like a satellite and land like an airplane, the second X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, built by Boeing for the United States Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, is an affordable, reusable space vehicle. Credit: Boeing. See landing video below
2nd X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Successfully Completes 1st Flight by landing at Vandernberg AFB, Calif., on June 16, 2012. It is designed to be launched like a satellite and land like an airplane. Credit: Boeing.

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 reusable space plane is designed to be launched like a satellite and land on a runway like an airplane and a NASA space shuttle. The X-37B is one of the newest and most advanced reentry spacecraft.

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.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

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.

The OTV-4 mission will shift its focus at least somewhat from tests of the vehicles performance to more on science experiments both with extra capacity available on the Atlas V rocket and payload space aboard the X-37B itself.

“We’re very pleased with the experiments lined-up for our fourth OTV Mission OTV-4,” Walden noted.

“We’ll continue to evaluate improvements to the space vehicle’s performance, but we’re honored to host these collaborative experiments that will help advance the state-of-the-art for space technology

Among the experiments for the flight are 10 CubeSats. They will launch in the Aft Bulkhead Carrier (ABC) located below the Centaur upper stage that contains eight P-Pods to release the CubeSats.

Following primary spacecraft separation the Centaur will change altitude and inclination in order to release the CubeSat spacecraft, ULA said in a statement.

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 Planetary Society.

NASA is also flying an advanced materials science payload on the X-37B called the Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS) investigation that will build on more than a decades worth of materials science research on the International Space Station (ISS) research.

“By flying the Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS) investigation on the X-37B, materials scientists have the opportunity to expose almost 100 different materials samples to the space environment for more than 200 days. METIS is building on data acquired during the Materials on International Space Station Experiment (MISSE), which flew more than 4,000 samples in space from 2001 to 2013, NASA said in a statement.

“By exposing materials to space and returning the samples to Earth, we gain valuable data about how the materials hold up in the environment in which they will have to operate,” said Miria Finckenor, the co-investigator on the MISSE experiment and principal investigator for METIS at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

“Spacecraft designers can use this information to choose the best material for specific applications, such as thermal protection or antennas or any other space hardware.”

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

Ken Kremer

United Launch Alliance to launch USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek
United Launch Alliance to launch USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek
US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch. This up close view of the nose cone holding the secretive  X-37B shows the umbilical line attachments. Credit: Ken Kremer
US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The X-37B is similar in many ways to NASA's space shuttle - but it is far smaller and unmanned. Photo Credit: Air Force
The X-37B is similar in many ways to NASA’s space shuttle – but it is far smaller and unmanned. Photo Credit: Air Force
US Air Force X-37B OTV-2 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to 5 March 2011 launch. This up close view of the nose cone holding the secretive  X 37-B shows the umbilical line attachments. Credit: Ken Kremer
US Air Force X-37B OTV-2 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to 5 March 2011 launch. This up close view of the nose cone holding the secretive X 37-B shows the umbilical line attachments. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Space Weather Storm Monitoring Satellite Blasts off for Deep Space on SpaceX Rocket

After a 17 year long wait, a new American mission to monitor intense solar storms and warn of impeding space weather disruptions to vital power grids, telecommunications satellites and public infrastructure was launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Wednesday, Feb. 11, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to start a million mile journey to its deep space observation post.

The third time proved to be the charm when the Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR science satellite lifted off at 6:03 p.m. EST Wednesday from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The spectacular sunset blastoff came after two scrubs this week forced by a technical problem with the Air Force tracking radar and adverse weather on Sunday and Tuesday.

The $340 million DSCOVR has a critical mission to monitor the solar wind and aid very important forecasts of space weather at Earth at an observation point nearly a million miles from Earth. It will also take full disk color images of the sunlit side of Earth at least six times per day that will be publicly available and “wow” viewers.

Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather.   Credit:  Julian Leek
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather. Credit: Julian Leek

The couch sized probe was targeted to the L1 Lagrange Point, a neutral gravity point that lies on the direct line between Earth and the sun located 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) sunward from Earth. At L1 the gravity between the sun and Earth is perfectly balanced and the satellite will orbit about that spot just like a planet.

L1 is a perfect place for the science because it lies outside Earth’s magnetic environment. The probe will measure the constant stream of solar wind particles from the sun as they pass by.

The DSCOVR spacecraft (3-axis stabilized, 570 kg) will be delivered to the Sun-Earth L1 point, 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from the Earth, directly in front of the Sun. A Halo (Lissajous) orbit will stabilize the craft's position around the L1 point while keeping it outside the radio noise emanating from the Sun. (Illustratin Credit: NASA)
The DSCOVR spacecraft (3-axis stabilized, 570 kg) will be delivered to the Sun-Earth L1 point, 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from the Earth, directly in front of the Sun. A Halo (Lissajous) orbit will stabilize the craft’s position around the L1 point while keeping it outside the radio noise emanating from the Sun. (Illustratin Credit: NASA)

DSCOVR is a joint mission between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S Air Force (USAF) that will be managed by NOAA. The satellite and science instruments are provided by NASA and NOAA. The rocket was funded by the USAF.

The mission is vital because its solar wind observations are crucial to maintaining accurate space weather forecasts to protect US infrastructure such as power grids, aviation, planes in flight, all types of Earth orbiting satellites for civilian and military needs, telecommunications, ISS astronauts and GPS systems.

It will take about 150 days to reach the L1 point and complete satellite and instrument checkouts.

DSCOVR will then become the first operational space weather mission to deep space and function as America’s primary warning system for solar magnetic storms.

It will replace NASA’s aging Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite which is nearly 20 years old and far beyond its original design lifetime.

“DSCOVR is the latest example of how NASA and NOAA work together to leverage the vantage point of space to both understand the science of space weather and provide direct practical benefits to us here on Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

DSCOVR was first proposed in 1998 by then US Vice President Al Gore as the low cost ‘Triana’ satellite to take near continuous views of the Earth’s entire globe to feed to the internet as a means of motivating students to study math and science. It was eventually built as a much more capable Earth science satellite that would also conduct the space weather observations.

But Triana was shelved for purely partisan political reasons and the satellite was placed into storage at NASA Goddard and the science was lost until now.

DSCOVR mission logo.  Credit: NOAA/NASA/U.S. Air Force
DSCOVR mission logo. Credit: NOAA/NASA/U.S. Air Force

DSCOVR is equipped with a suite of four continuously operating solar science and Earth science instruments from NASA and NOAA.

It will make simultaneous scientific observations of the solar wind and the entire sunlit side of Earth.

The 750-kilogram (1250 pound) DSCOVR probe measures 54 inches by 72 inches.

Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace

The two Earth science instruments from NASA are the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology Advanced Radiometer (NISTAR).

EPIC will provide true color spectral images of the entire sunlit face of Earth at least six times per day, as viewed from an orbit around L1. They will be publically available within 24 hours via NASA Langley.

It will view the full disk of the entire sunlit Earth from sunrise to sunset and collect a variety of science measurements including on ozone, aerosols, dust and volcanic ash, vegetation properties, cloud heights and more.

Listen to my post launch interview with the BBC about DSCOVR and ESA’s successful IXV launch on Feb. 11.

A secondary objective by SpaceX to recover the Falcon 9 first stage booster on an ocean going barge had to be skipped due to very poor weather and very high waves in the Atlantic Ocean making a safe landing impossible. The stage did successfully complete a soft landing in the ocean.

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

Ken Kremer

NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather.   Credit:  John Studwell
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather. Credit: John Studwell
Prelaunch view of SpaceX rocket on Cape Canaveral launch pad taken from LC-39 at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Chuck Higgins
Prelaunch view of SpaceX rocket on Cape Canaveral launch pad taken from LC-39 at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Chuck Higgins

NOAA/NASA/USAF Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) Launching Feb. 8 to Monitor Solar Winds

The long awaited Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR science satellite is slated to blast off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Sunday, Feb. 8, from Cape Canaveral, Florida on a mission to monitor the solar wind and aid very important forecasts of space weather at Earth.

DSCOVR is a joint mission between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S Air Force (USAF) that will be managed by NOAA. The satellite and science instruments are provided by NASA and NOAA.

Update Feb 8: Hold, Hold, Hold !!! 6:10 PM 2/8/15 Terminal Count aborted at T Minus 2 min 26 sec due to a tracking issue. NO launch of Falcon 9 today. rocket being safed now. next launch opportunity is Monday. Still TBD.

The rocket is provided by the USAF. SpaceX will try to recover the first stage via a guided descent to a floating barge in the Atlantic Ocean.

The weather outlook is currently very promising with a greater than 90 percent chance of favorable weather at launch time shortly after sunset on Sunday which could make for a spectacular viewing opportunity for spectators surrounding the Florida Space coast.

Liftoff atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is targeted for at 6:10:12 p.m. EST on Feb. 8, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40.

There is an instantaneous launch window, meaning that any launch delay due to weather, technical or other factors will force a scrub to Monday.

The launch will be broadcast live on NASA TV: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

NASA’s DSCOVR launch blog coverage of countdown and liftoff will begin at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace

“DSCOVR is NOAA’s first operational space weather mission to deep space,” said Stephen Volz, assistant administrator of the NOAA Satellite and Information Service in Silver Spring, Maryland, at the pre-launch briefing today (Feb. 7) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The mission of DSCOVR is vital because its solar wind observations are crucial to maintaining accurate space weather forecasts to protect US infrastructure from disruption by approaching solar storms.

“DSCOVR will maintain the nation’s solar wind observations, which are critical to the accuracy and lead time of NOAA’s space weather alerts, forecasts, and warnings,” according to a NASA description.

“Space weather events like geomagnetic storms caused by changes in solar wind can affect public infrastructure systems, including power grids, telecommunications systems, and aircraft avionics.”

DSCOVR will replace NASA’s aging Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite which is nearly 20 years old and far beyond its original design lifetime.

The couch sized probe is being targeted to the L1 Lagrange Point, a neutral gravity point that lies on the direct line between Earth and the sun located 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) sunward from Earth. At L1 the gravity between the sun and Earth is perfectly balanced and the satellite will orbit about that spot just like a planet.

L1 is a perfect place for the science because it lies outside Earth’s magnetic environment. The probe will measure the constant stream of solar wind particles from the sun as they pass by.

Diagram of the five Lagrange points associated with the sun-Earth system, showing DSCOVR orbiting the L-1 point. Image is not to scale.  Credit:  NASA/WMAP Science Team
Diagram of the five Lagrange points associated with the sun-Earth system, showing DSCOVR orbiting the L-1 point. Image is not to scale. Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team

This will enable forecasters to give a 15 to 60 minute warning of approaching geomagnetic storms that could damage valuable infrastructure.

DSCOVR is equipped with a suite of four continuously operating solar science and Earth science instruments from NASA and NOAA.

It will make simultaneous scientific observations of the solar wind and the entire sunlit side of Earth.

Three instruments will help measure the solar wind on the DSCOVR mission: (shown from left to right), the Faraday cup to monitor the speed and direction of positively-charged solar wind particles, the electron spectrometer to monitor electrons, and a magnetometer to measure magnetic fields.  Credit: NASA/DSCOVR
Three instruments will help measure the solar wind on the DSCOVR mission: (shown from left to right), the Faraday cup to monitor the speed and direction of positively-charged solar wind particles, the electron spectrometer to monitor electrons, and a magnetometer to measure magnetic fields. Credit: NASA/DSCOVR

The 750-kilogram DSCOVR probe measures 54 inches by 72 inches.

I saw the DSCOVR spacecraft up close at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland last fall during processing in the clean room.

NOAA/NASA/USAF Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room.  Probe will launch in February atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NOAA/NASA/USAF Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Probe will launch in February atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

A secondary objective of the rocket launch for SpaceX is to conduct their second attempt to recover the Falcon 9 first stage booster on an ocean going barge. Read my articles about the first attempt in January 2015, starting here.

It was originally named ‘Triana’ (aka Goresat) and was conceived by then US Vice President Al Gore as a low cost satellite to take near continuous views of the Earth’s entire globe to feed to the internet as a means of motivating students to study math and science. It was eventually built as a much more capable Earth science satellite as well as to conduct the space weather observations.

But Triana was shelved for purely partisan political reasons and the satellite was placed into storage and the science was lost until now.

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

Ken Kremer

The team is ready for the launch of NASA's DSCOVR spacecraft aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. L/R Mike Curie KSC NASA News Chief, Stephen Volz, assistant administrator NOAA, Tom Berger, director of NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center Boulder Colorado,Steven Clark, NASA Joint Agency Satellite Division, Col. D. Jason Cothern, Space Demonstration Division chief at Kirkland AFB NM. Hans Koenigsmann, VP of mission assurance at SpaceX in Hawthorne, California, Mike McAlaneen, launch weather officer 45th Space wing Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  Credit: Julian Leek
The team is ready for the launch of NASA’s DSCOVR spacecraft aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. L/R Mike Curie KSC NASA News Chief, Stephen Volz, assistant administrator NOAA, Tom Berger, director of NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center Boulder Colorado,Steven Clark, NASA Joint Agency Satellite Division, Col. D. Jason Cothern, Space Demonstration Division chief at Kirkland AFB NM. Hans Koenigsmann, VP of mission assurance at SpaceX in Hawthorne, California, Mike McAlaneen, launch weather officer 45th Space wing Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

Busy Year of 13 Launches by ULA in 2015 Begins with Blastoffs for the Navy and NASA

A busy year of 13 space launches by rocket provider United Launch Alliance (ULA) in 2015 begins with a pair of blastoffs for the US Navy and NASA tonight and next week, emanating from both the US East and West Coasts.

The hefty manifest of 13 liftoffs in 2015 comes hot on the heels of ULA’s banner year in 2014 whereby they completed every one of the firm’s 14 planned launches in 2014 with a 100% success rate.

“What ULA has accomplished in 2014, in support of our customers’ missions, is nothing short of remarkable,” said ULA CEO Tory Bruno.

“When you think about every detail – all of the science, all of the planning, all of the resources – that goes into a single launch, it is hard to believe that we successfully did it at a rate of about once a month, sometimes twice.”

ULA’s stable of launchers includes the Delta II, Delta IV and the Atlas V. They are in direct competition with the Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX founded by billionaire Elon Musk.

And ULA’s 2015 launch calendar begins tonight with a milestone launch for the US Navy that also marks the 200th launch overall of the venerable Atlas-Centaur rocket that has a renowned history dating back some 52 years to 1962 with multiple variations.

And tonight’s blastoff of the Multi-User Objective System (MUOS-3) satellite for the US Navy involves using the most powerful variant of the rocket, known as the Atlas V 551.

Liftoff of MUOS-3 is set for 7:43 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The launch window extends for 44 minutes and the weather outlook is very favorable. It will be carried live on a ULA webcast.

MUOS-3 Navy communications satellite and Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL for launch on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: ULA
MUOS-3 Navy communications satellite and Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL for launch on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: ULA

The second ULA launch of 2015 comes just over 1 week later on January 29, lofting NASA’s SMAP Earth observation satellite on a Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

MUOS is a next-generation narrowband tactical satellite communications system designed to significantly improve ground communications for U.S. forces on the move, according to ULA.

This is the third satellite in the MUOS series and will provide military users 10 times more communications capability over existing systems, including simultaneous voice, video and data, leveraging 3G mobile communications technology.

ULA’s second launch in 2015 thunders aloft from the US West Coast with NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive mission (SMAP). It is the first US Earth-observing satellite designed to collect global observations of surface soil moisture.

SMAP will blastoff from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg AFB at 9:20 a.m. EST (6:20 a.m. PST) on ULA’s Delta II rocket.

NASA's Soil Moisture Active Passive mission (SMAP) will lift off from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 9:20 a.m. EST (6:20 a.m. PST) on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket.   Credit:  NASA
NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive mission (SMAP) will lift off from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 9:20 a.m. EST (6:20 a.m. PST) on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket. Credit: NASA

“It goes without saying: ULA had a banner year,” Bruno said. “As we look ahead to 2015, we could not be more honored to continue supporting our nation in one of the most technologically complex, critical American needs: affordable, reliable access to space.”

ULA began operations in December 2006 with the merger of the expendable launch vehicle operations of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

ULA’s Delta IV Heavy is currently the world’s most powerful rocket and flawlessly launched NASA’s Orion capsule on Dec. 5, 2014 on its highly successful uncrewed maiden test flight on the EFT-1 mission.

Overall, the 14-mission launch manifest in 2014 included 9 national security space missions, 3 space exploration missions, including NASA’s Orion EFT-1 and 2 commercial missions.

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

Beyond MUOS-3 and SMAP, the launch manifest on tap for 2015 also includes additional NASA science satellites, an ISS commercial cargo resupply mission as well as more GPS satellites for military and civilian uses and top secret national security launches using the Delta II, Delta IV and the Atlas V boosters.

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS) to study Earth’s magnetic reconnection is scheduled for launch on an Atlas V 421 booster on March 12 from Cape Canaveral. See my up close visit with MMS and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center detailed in my story – here.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

In March, June and September the GPS 2F-9, 2F-10 and 2F-11 navigation satellites will launch on Delta IV and Atlas V rockets from Cape Canaveral.

Two top secret NRO satellites are set to launch on a Delta IV and Atlas in April and August from Vandenberg.

An Air Force Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) space plane may launch as soon as May atop an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral.

The MUOS-4 liftoff is set for August on another Atlas from the Cape.

The Morelos 3 communications satellite for the Mexican Ministry of Communications and Transportation is due to launch in October from the Cape.

In November, the Atlas V will be pressed into service for the first time to launch the Orbital Sciences Cygnus Orb-4 cargo vehicle to the International Space Station (ISS) as a replacement rocket for the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket which is grounded following its catastrophic Oct. 28 explosion on the Orb-3 mission from NASA Wallops.

This Cygnus launched atop Antares on Jan. 9 and docked on Jan. 12   Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during exclusive visit by  Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. ISS astronauts will open this hatch to unload 2780 pounds of cargo.  Docking mechanism hooks and latches to ISS at left. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
This Cygnus launched atop Antares on Jan. 9, 2014. The next Cygnus Orb-4 will launch for the first time atop an Atlas V in Nov. 2015. Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. ISS astronauts will open this hatch to unload 2780 pounds of cargo. Docking mechanism hooks and latches to ISS at left. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The Orb-4 launch also marks ULA’s first launch to the ISS. It may be followed by another Cygnus launch atop an Atlas V in 2016 as Orbital works to bring the Antares back into service.

Antares doomed descent to incendiary destruction after first stage propulsion system of Orbital Sciences’ rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Antares doomed descent to incendiary destruction after first stage propulsion system of Orbital Sciences’ rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

In another major milestone down the road, the Atlas V is being man rated since it was chosen to launch the Boeing CST-100 space taxi which NASA selected as one of two new commercial crew vehicles to launch US astronauts to the ISS as soon as 2017.

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

Ken Kremer

Mysterious Military X-37B Space plane Lands after Nearly Two Years in Orbit – Video

Recovery crew members process the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at Vandenberg Air Force Base after completing 674 days in space. A total of three X-37B missions have been completed, totaling 1,367 days on orbit. Photo: Boeing
Watch cool landing video below[/caption]

The US Air Force’s unmanned, X-37B military space plane made an autonomous runway landing on Friday, Oct. 17, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., concluding an orbital test flight nearly two years in duration on a record breaking mission whose goals are shrouded in secrecy.

The Boeing-built X-37B, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), successfully fired its baking thrusters, plunged through the atmosphere, endured scorching re-entry heating and safely rolled to touch down on Vandenberg Air Force Base at 9:24 a.m. PDT Friday, concluding a clandestine 674-day experimental test mission for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

This was the third flight of an X-37B OTV vehicle on a mission known as OTV-3.

“I’m extremely proud of our team for coming together to execute this third safe and successful landing,” said Col Keith Balts, 30th Space Wing commander, in a statement.

“Everyone from our on console space operators to our airfield managers and civil engineers take pride in this unique mission and exemplify excellence during its execution.”

Nothing is known about the flights objectives or accomplishments beyond testing the vehicle itself.

The OTV is somewhat like a miniature version of NASA’s space shuttles. Boeing has built two OTV vehicles.

The reusable space plane is designed to be launched like a satellite and land on a runway like an airplane and a NASA space shuttle. The X-37B is one of the newest and most advanced reentry spacecraft.

A third mission of the Boeing-built X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle was completed on Oct. 17, 2014, when it landed and was recovered at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif, following a successful 674-day space mission.  Photo: Boeing
A third mission of the Boeing-built X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle was completed on Oct. 17, 2014, when it landed and was recovered at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif, following a successful 674-day space mission. Photo: Boeing

OTV-3 also marked the first reflight of an OTV vehicle, to test its re-usability.

The OTV-3 mission was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on Dec. 11, 2012, encapsulated inside the payload fairing atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41.

Among the primary mission goals of the first two flights were check outs of the vehicles capabilities and reentry systems and testing the ability to send experiments to space and return them safely.

It is not known if the X-37B conducted reconnaissance activities during the test flights. It does have the capability to deploy satellites in space.

All three OTV missions have launched from Cape Canaveral and landed at Vandenberg.

The first OTV mission launched on April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit. The second OTV mission began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit.

Here’s a video of the OTV-3 landing:

Video Caption: The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission 3 (OTV-3), the Air Force’s unmanned, reusable space plane, landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 9:24 a.m. Oct. 17. Credit: USAF

“The 30th Space Wing and our mission partners, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, Boeing, and our base support contractors, have put countless hours of hard work into preparing for this landing and today we were able to see the culmination of that dedication,” said Balts.

The 11,000 pound 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.

Altogether, the OTV vehicles have spent 1,334 days in Earth orbit.

The OTV’s can stay on orbit far longer than NASA’s shuttles since their power is supplemented by solar panels deployed from the vehicles open cargo bay.

“The landing of OTV-3 marks a hallmark event for the program” said the X-37B program manager. “The mission is our longest to date and we’re pleased with the incremental progress we’ve seen in our testing of the reusable space plane. The dedication and hard work by the entire team has made us extremely proud.”

“With a program total of 1,367 days on orbit over three missions, these agile and powerful small space vehicles have completed more days on orbit than all 135 Space Shuttle missions combined, which total 1,334 days,” said Ken Torok, Boeing director of Experimental Systems, in a statement.

Recovery crew members process the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at Vandenberg Air Force Base after completing 674 days in space. A total of three X-37B missions have been completed, totaling 1,367 days on orbit.   Photo: Boeing
Recovery crew members process the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at Vandenberg Air Force Base after completing 674 days in space. A total of three X-37B missions have been completed, totaling 1,367 days on orbit. Photo: Boeing

“The X-37B is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft. Managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the X-37B program performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies,” according to an Air Force statement.

The Air Force says that the next X-37B launch on the OTV-4 mission is due to liftoff from Cape Canaveral sometime in 2015.

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

Ken Kremer

US Air Force X-37B OTV-2 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to 5 March 2011 launch. This up close view of the nose cone holding the secretive  X 37-B shows the umbilical line attachments. Credit: Ken Kremer
US Air Force X-37B OTV-2 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to 5 March 2011 launch. This up close view of the nose cone holding the secretive X-37B shows the umbilical line attachments. Credit: Ken Kremer

Atlas V Blasts Off with Clandestine US Spy Satellite Amidst Russian Engine Controversy

An Atlas V rocket thundered to space on Thursday, May 22, carrying a clandestine surveillance satellite for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) amidst a swirling controversy regarding the boosters long term viability due to its dependence on the continued assured supply of Russian made engines.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket soared to space with a super secret payload designated NROL-33 in support of US national defense from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:09 a.m. EDT.

The launch was carried live on a ULA webcast but was deliberately cutoff after five minutes as part of a preannounced news blackout on the top secret mission.

Nothing is known about the nature of NROL-33 or its covert intelligence gathering mission.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying NROL-33 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 22 at 9:09 a.m. EDT.  Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying NROL-33 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 22 at 9:09 a.m. EDT. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

The liftoff caps an impressively successful series of four high priority and high value launches by ULA that were accomplished at a rapid pace of barely seven weeks time – speaking volumes about their reliability and diligence.

And the Atlas V also marked the second successful ULA rocket launch in less than one week. It follows on the heels of last weeks blastoff of a ULA Delta IV rocket with an advanced GPS satellite for the US Air Force that benefits hundreds of millions of ordinary users worldwide.

In April, another clandestine surveillance satellite dubbed NROL-67 was also launched on an Atlas V for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

One can conclude that NROL-67 was certainly a larger and heavier payload compared to NROL-33 since the most powerful version of the Atlas V launcher was used with five strap on solid rocket motors vs. no solids for Thursday’s liftoff. NROL-67 also was housed inside the larger five-meter diameter payload fairing.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying NROL-33 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 22 at 9:09 a.m. EDT.  Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying NROL-33 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 22 at 9:09 a.m. EDT. Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace

But the future of the venerable Atlas V – and therefore even US National Security launches like those of NROL-33 and NROL-67 – is cloudy because each first stage core is powered by a pair of Russian made RD-180 rocket engines whose future supply was cast in doubt by recent statements from Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, lawsuits by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and pointed questions from Congress.

“Moscow is banning Washington from using Russian-made rocket engines, which the US has used to deliver its military satellites into orbit,” Rogozin said at a media briefing held on May 13.

An almost cold war like crisis in US-Russian relations began with Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea region earlier this year.

The ongoing Ukraine crisis has resulted in continuing deadly confrontations and the institution of economic sanctions against Russia and several Russian officials, including specifically Rogozin, by the US and Western European nations.

“We proceed from the fact that without guarantees that our engines are used for non-military spacecraft launches only, we won’t be able to supply them to the US,” Rogozin said.

The dual chamber, dual nozzle RD-180 engines are manufactured in Russia by NPO Energomash and has performed flawlessly to date.

Rogozin’s statements could effectively block their export to the US, thus calling into question the reliability of their continued supply for the Atlas V first stage and the ability of the US to launch critical national security payloads.

NASA is also a hefty user of the Atlas V for many of the agency’s science and communication satellites like the Curiosity Mars rover, MAVEN Mars orbiter, MMS, Juno Jupiter orbiter and TDRS.

The Atlas V is also planned as the launcher for two of the three companies – Boeing and Sierra Nevada – vying for the next round of commercial crew space taxi contracts aimed at launching US astronauts to the ISS. The commercial crew contracts will be awarded by NASA later this year.

Despite Rogozin’s threatening statements, the RD-180 export situation is not completely clear and ULA has some engines on hand to last a few years.

“ULA has a two year supply of RD-180 engines already stockpiled in the U.S.,” ULA spokesperson Jessica Rye told me.

“We currently have 16 engines in the U.S.” said Rye.

Five more RD-180 engines are due for delivery later this year.

ULA also issued this recent statement in response to Rogozins’ comments.

“ULA and our NPO Energomash supplier in Russia are not aware of any restrictions.”

Certain national security payloads can also be shifted from the Atlas V to the Delta IV.

“ULA and our Department of Defense customers have always prepared contingency plans in the event of a supply disruption. ULA has two launch vehicles that can support all of customers’ needs. We also maintain a two-year inventory of engines to enable a smooth transition to our other rocket, Delta, which has all U.S.-produced rocket engines.”

Besides Rogozin’s listing on the US economic sanctions target list, he was also named by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in his firms recent attempts to legally block the importation of the RD-180 engines by ULA for the Atlas V as a violation of the US economic sanctions.

Federal Judge Susan Braden initially imposed a temporary injunction blocking the RD-180 imports on April 30. She rescinded that order on May 8, after receiving written communications clarifications from the US Justice and Commerce departments that the engine import did not violate the US government imposed sanctions.

Here’s my earlier articles about Rogozin’s statements, Musk’s suit and more about the effects of economic sanctions imposed by the US and Western nations in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea; here, here, here and here.

ULA remains upbeat.

“Congratulations to all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch of the NROL-33 mission! The ULA team is honored to deliver another critical national security asset to orbit together with the NRO Office of Space Launch and the Air Force,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

“Today’s launch occurred six days after last week’s GPS IIF-6 launch – the second time this year that this team has launched back-to-back missions within a week. Successfully launching at this tempo is a testament to the team’s focus on mission success, one-launch-at-a-time, and continuous improvement of our launch processes.”

Watch for Ken’s articles about the ongoing Ukraine crisis with uncertain and potentially dire consequences for US National Security and NASA.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing ULA, Boeing, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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
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

Court Injunction Blocks Russian Engine Purchase by ULA for US National Security – Win for SpaceX Yields Uncertainty

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
Story updated[/caption]

A US Federal Court has now issued a preliminary injunction that blocks the purchase and importation of Russian rocket engines by United Launch Alliance (ULA) for its Atlas V rocket used in National Security launches for the US Air Force after a filing by SpaceX. But what are the implications?

The US Federal Court of Federal Claims order was issued late Wednesday, April 30, by US Judge Susan G. Braden of the US Court of Federal Claims. The court order is in response to a protest filed by SpaceX against ULA and the US Air Force relating to the uncontested $11 Billion “block buy” launch contract purchase in December of 36 rocket cores for US National Security launches and is also related to US sanctions imposed after Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine and seizing and annexing the Crimea.

The temporary injunction marks a big win for SpaceX but immediately throws future National Security spy satellite and NASA science launches into uncertainty and potential disarray as I reported previously – here and here.

As I posted here last Friday, April 25, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk declared his firms intent to file suit against ULA and the Air Force on Monday, April 28 to break the launch monopoly.

Judge Braden’s injunction followed barely two days later.

Musk said the recent ‘block buy’ launch contract was unfair in blocking SpaceX from competing for launches of surveillance satellites, would cost taxpayers billions of extra dollars in coming years and should be recompetited.

“The national security launches should be put up for competition and they should not be awarded on a sole source, uncompeted basis,” Musk said at the April 25 briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

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

ULA quickly vowed today that they will respond to resolve the injunction and further stated that “This opportunistic action by SpaceX … ignores the potential implications to our National Security.”

Federal Judge Braden’s order specifically states the following; “The preliminary injunction prohibits the United States Air Force and United Launch Alliance, from making any purchases from or payment of money to NPO Energomash or any entity, whether governmental, corporate or individual, that is subject to the control of Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin.”

“IT IS SO ORDERED,” wrote Braden.

The engines at the heart of the Federal preliminary injunction are the RD-180 liquid fueled engines which power ULA’s Atlas V rocket and are manufactured in Russia by NPO Energomash – which is majority state owned by the Russian Federation and subject to the control of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin, who is specifically named on the US economic sanctions target list.

In response, Rogozin said that sanctions could “boomerang” against the US space program. He said that perhaps NASA should “deliver their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”

Thanks to the utter folly of US politicians in shutting down the Space Shuttle program before a replacement crew vehicle was available and repeatedly slashing NASA’s commercial crew budget, American astronauts are now 100% dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for rides to the ISS and back for several more years ahead.

NASA has NO immediate alternatives to Russia’s Soyuz – period.

The rocket engine injunction is just the latest fallout impacting a vast swath of US space programs from National Defense to NASA stemming from the dangerously escalating crisis between Ukraine and the Russian Federation in the worst confrontation with the West since the Cold War era.

In response to the worsening Ukraine crisis, Western nations have instituted waves of increasingly harsh economic sanctions against Russia and several key members of the Russian government.

Judge Braden’s injunction stands until she receives clarification otherwise from US government entities that the engine purchase is not covered by the Federal government santions.

The order remains in effect “unless and until the court receives the opinion of the United States Department of the Treasury, and the United States Department of Commerce and United States Department of State, that any such purchases or payments will not directly or indirectly contravene Executive Order 13,661.”

ULA issued a swift statement today – received by Universe Today – from ULA’s general counsel Kevin G. MacCary, in response to Judge Braden’s preliminary injunction.

“ULA is deeply concerned with this ruling and we will work closely with the Department of Justice to resolve the injunction expeditiously. In the meantime, ULA will continue to demonstrate our commitment to our National Security on the launch pad by assuring the safe delivery of the missions we are honored to support.”

“SpaceX’s attempt to disrupt a national security launch contract so long after the award ignores the potential implications to our National Security and our nation’s ability to put Americans on board the International Space Station.”

The Atlas V rocket, powered by the Russian made RD-180 engines, will also be used as the launch vehicle by two of the three companies vying for the next round of commercial crew contracts aimed at launching US astronauts to the ISS. The contracts will be awarded by NASA later this year.

“This opportunistic action by SpaceX appears to be an attempt to circumvent the requirements imposed on those who seek to meet the challenging launch needs of the nation and to avoid having to follow the rules, regulations and standards expected of a company entrusted to support our nation’s most sensitive missions,” said ULA.

ULA is a joint venture between aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin, formed in 2006. It has conducted 81 consecutive launches with 100% mission success – including many NASA science and mission probes like Orion EFT-1, Curiosity, MAVEN, TDRS and more.

Judge Braden furthermore made clear that her order did not include prior RD-180 engine purchases.

“The scope of this preliminary injunction does not extend to any purchase orders that have been placed or moneys paid to NPO Energomash prior to the date of this
Order [April 30, 2014].”

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 by Russia or US court injuncions, it would take ULA 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.

SpaceX claims they can fill part of the launch gap. But their Falcon rockets are not yet certified for National Security launches.

“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.”

“In light of international events, this seems like the wrong time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kremlin,” said Musk during the April 25 press briefing 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

Watch for my continuing articles as the Ukraine crisis escalates and court orders fly – with uncertain and potentially dire consequences for US National Security and NASA.

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

Curiosity rover launches to Mars atop Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer
NASA’s Curiosity rover launches to Mars atop Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Atlas V 1st stage is powered by Russian made RD-180 engines.
Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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