The ping pong match between the House and the Senate over ULA’s request for more RD-180 engines for the Atlas V was in the hands of the latter yesterday, where the Senate Armed Services Committee once again insisted that the number be limited to 9 engines beyond tbose already ordered as part of the block buy.
From Spacepolicyonline, which has the complete play by play here:
“The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved its version of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today. Continuing a two-year dispute over how many Russian RD-180 rockets engines may be obtained for United Launch Alliance (ULA) Altas V rockets, the committee insisted on keeping the number at nine instead of raising it to 18 as recommended by its House counterpart. The SASC bill would also repeal language in the FY2016 appropriations bill that lifted the limit set in last year’s NDAA”
At the same time, ULA’s Tory Bruno published an op/ed in TheHill.com this week, a piece aimed at securing Congressional permission for dropping the Delta IV booster. The first sentence is rather remarkable given the fact that that Bruno’s company has spent the better part of the last decade vociferously arguing against all three principles it now purports to “agree” with:
“When it comes to the future of national security space launch, everyone agrees on three things: competition is good, affordability is paramount and we must transition to all-American engines as soon as possible.”
The piece goes on to argue that ULA should be allowed to discontinue the Delta line:
It’s too expensive: Delta is an amazing rocket, but it’s costly to produce. Its burnt-orange foam insulation has to be applied by hand. Its production line is bigger and more complex than Atlas’s. And its components are pricier. The Air Force estimates switching to an all-Delta fleet will cost taxpayers $2 billion or more.
It will stifle competition: Delta is unlikely to be cost-competitive on any but the heaviest of satellite payloads, which would effectively deny the Air Force the benefit of competitions on lower-end launches. Atlas, on the other hand, has already won a number of competitive commercial and civil space launches. If you want true competition, Atlas is the only answer.
It will put a damper on innovation: Forcing ULA to use Delta means it won’t fly as many competitively-awarded launches, which will restrict the critical stream of funding that we need to develop the Vulcan Centaur. That will inevitably delay development of the new rocket, making warfighters wait that much longer for the introduction of new innovations. Atlas, on the other hand, keeps us on pace for a first flight in 2019 — again, that’s twice as fast as historical development programs have moved.
If you believe that competition is good, and if you believe that affordability is paramount, an Atlas bridge is the only answer….Please ask Congress to create the smooth transition from Atlas to Vulcan Centaur that will keep America’s launch industry healthy for decades to come.”
It is interesting to note that Bruno fails to mention that based on ULA’s own statements, the Delta line will be continued in its triple core heavy configuration anyway, at least until whatever time the SpaceX Falcon Heavy is certified for national security launches. Even then, in the case of any slip in the Vulcan’s development schedule, ULA is almost guaranteed to argue that based on its longer history, the Delta Heavy should continue to be selected for the largest payloads because they are the most expensive, and therefore the most valuable.
So what really is at stake is just the Delta Medium, which comes in four basic configurations. ULA, with some assistance from the Air Force, is desperately trying to convince Congress that the nation faces a serious financial risk if it suddenly has to transition from the more affordable Atlas V to the more expensive Delta for certain payloads. Notably Bruno cites a $2 billion figure, which is $3 billion less than previous scare numbers which were subsequently challenged by Senator McCain. So $2 billion it is, except that it isn’t.
Last week SpaceX published upgraded performance numbers for the Falcon 9 booster in expendable mode, and one of the byproducts of those numbers is that at 8,300 kg to GTO, the Falcon 9 now eclipses every version of the Delta Medium, and comes within spitting distance of the heaviest and most expensive version of the Atlas V, the 551. As a result, there is a serious question of whether or not there is any DOD or NRO payload which is too heavy for the fully expendable Falcon 9, yet conveniently falls within the capability of the 551, without moving on the Delta Heavy which is going to remain the go- to booster for the heaviest launches anyway.
And if even if there is, there is no doubt that the cumulative cost savings of competitively bid launches awarded to SpaceX and the Falcon 9, which does not scale up in price according to payload as does the ULA’s “dial a rocket” pricing, will easily surpass the one-off expense of an additional Delta Heavy for a line that must go on at least for the time being. If we are going to make policy based on “what if” bad news scenarios, then we also need to take into account the goods news alternatives as well, particularly when they are playing out right before our eyes.
What that leaves then, which is an unspoken part of ULA’s argument, is the very real possibility that in the event of another Falcon 9 failure, the U.S. has to order more Delta while SpaceX goes through another stand down and return to flight. While this could certainly happen, there are three elements to consider.
The first is that it may be increasingly less likely to happen in the first place due to SpaceX’s unique capability to recover and study the first stage of its booster, looking for evidence of possible failure modes, and making changes accordingly. While the second stage, which was after all, the source of the last year’s Falcon 9 failure, will not be subject to the same processes, its most important component, the Merlin 1-D engine, has the benefit of commonality.
The second factor relates to the pace of return to flight following a major failure. Again, by virtue of the fact that SpaceX is its own majority contractor, the process in the one case so far, was a short one. There is little reason to believe that would change.
The final point is the most important, and it is one ULA’s Bruno partially makes in his op/ed, but he probably does not want Congress to draw out to its logical conclusion. Until the Vulcan is developed, the Atlas V is not going anywhere. It will continue to be available just as it was when Orbital ATK needed a stand-in booster after its Antares failure.
In addition to whatever commercial business ULA can secure, Boeing will be using it for NASA’s Commercial Crew program, and Sierra Nevada for its Dream Chaser cargo vehicle under the CRS-2 contract. Does anyone really think that in the event of a a mysterious, unsolvable problem with the Falcon family occurring before the Vulcan is ready, that Congress, and/or the President would not hastily make an exception to the RD-180 ban to allow critical national security payloads to be flown aboard an Atlas?
The only thing to fear……you know the rest.