Atlas, Delta, Falcon and Whole Bunch of Smoke

Delta IV Credit: ULA

Delta IV
Credit: ULA

Opinionated Analysis

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 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.

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5 Comments on "Atlas, Delta, Falcon and Whole Bunch of Smoke"

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  1. Michael says:

    A Russian rocket lifting American payloads to space? How did such a politically incongruous scenario come into being? The pressure of economics may be the impetus but such a marriage between two organisations from politically opposed families has an eventual divorce waiting. Spacex is causing a major shift in the means of production and costing of rocket launches. The era of over pricing for the sake of pleasing shareholders has been shattered. What ULA is experiencing is the natural consequence of short-sighted greed by the hands of a company driven by long-term passion and progressive thinking.

    All the players in the rocket launching industry are to blame for the situation ULA is in. With the exception of Spacex, launching rockets is a purely money making venture for the companies involved that are focused on the now of profit. Spacex is looking to fulfil a dream as economically as possible to make it achievable. Sooner or later the rest of the companies will have to meet the challenge of Spacex. Hopefully, it will result in American rockets never having to rely on Russian engines again.

  2. Zed_Weasel says:

    Actually ULA shouldn’t worry too much about the Falcon Heavy.

    The USAF is funding the MethaLOX Raptor upper stage for the Falcon 9. Which should make the single core Falcon 9 more capable then the Delta IV Heavy at roughly the current price. The new upper stage might mostly to be reusable.

    When the MethaLOX upper stage come online. The other launch provider will loss more market share. Should be an interesting time ahead.

  3. Art says:

    Boeing has been wanting to end Delta IV Medium since they got caught cheating in the initial EELV bid during the early 2000’s. So, ULA has to do what their Boeing master desires. But, I can see ULA’s point. AJR’s engines are so expensive, even ULA can’t wait to get from under their yoke. On the other hand, ULA is probably upset that the assured access subsidy is going to end, that, they are trying to punish the DOD by choosing the Atlas V over the Delta IV medium & keeping the most expensive Delta IV option. ULA as designed exists at the order of the government. Going against the political winds puts it in danger of a federal court ordering it to break up into it’s original companies.

  4. Tom Billings says:

    “A Russian rocket lifting American payloads to space? How did such a politically incongruous scenario come into being?”


    Before the end of January 1993, the Clinton WH gave in to the wing of the Dem Party that loathed Ballistic Missile Defense, and round-filed a Treaty that was within 6 months of being ready to sign. It was to replace the ABM Treaty with a “Global Protection Against Limited Strikes” (GPALS) in orbit, implementing what SDIO was cllling “Brilliant Pebbles” technology. It was to be built by the US and launched and operated partly by the new Russian State in cooperation with the US. It would make the Russians respected strategic partners against the proliferation of nuclear ballistic missiles. Its blatant cancellation caused immense dismay and anger in the Russian Military. That became the core of today’s “Great Russia Faction” (GFR) in the Kremlin, guided since about 1996 by Vladimir Putin.

    The next 2 decades were spent trying to placate the Russians over this insult and perceived slights that came from the further assumptions of this faction. Among other things, we converted Space Station Freedom to ISS, with Russia as a partner. The WH made it clear to LM that a Russian engine in their EELV bid would be looked favorably upon. The military was “architectured out” of manned spaceflight in the US. None of this worked to placate the “Great Russia Faction”.

    “The pressure of economics may be the impetus but such a marriage between two organisations from politically opposed families has an eventual divorce waiting.”

    Not if the initial impulse to it had not been given in 1993. When Democratic Party internal politics was made the deciding rationale of strategic policy, the US lost its chance to have Russians as allies nearly as good as Germany and Japan are today.

    • Michael says:

      Thanks for that detailed information Tom. If you have a website or source for the information you provided, I would appreciate you posting it.

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