Russian Engine Blazing, Atlas V Lofts Spy Satellite

Image Credit: ULA

Doing what it undeniably does best, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lofted a National Reconnaissance Office satellite into orbit this morning from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The classified NROL-33 launch lifted off at 9:09 AM EDT this morning aboard the most basic version of the Atlas-V, the 401, which includes a 4 meter payload fairing and no strap on solid rocket boosters.

Unlike so many previous launches in which U.S. dependence on Russian engines for military missions passed without even so much as a raised eyebrow, today’s effort comes amidst increased scrutiny of the RD-180 and the Atlas V due to two factors.

One is the lawsuit brought Elon Musk and SpaceX against a DOD block buy which would see the U.S. further its dependence on the booster without the opportunity for open competition for five more years. The suit was brought about in part due to a change in procurement strategy which saw 14 possible opportunities for open competition reduced to no more than 7, and perhaps a few as 1.

The other issue is a recent threat by Russian defense and space minister Dimity Rogozin to deny the U.S. further use of the RD-180 engine for military missions such as the one today.  Although issued on Twitter and in a speech in Russian, the there has been no further move towards making good on that threat, leading some to conclude it was mere bluster.

There are two items specific to today’s launch which are worthy of additional mention, and both relate to comments earlier this week by ULA President Michael Gass, who seeking to deflect criticism, revealed some partial pricing data regarding the controversial block buy contract.

The first is the price, which Gass asserted is roughly $164 million for the 401 version of the booster, which happened to be the model which launched today.  That price, meant to suggest that the booster is much less expensive than often reported, and closer to the range of the SpaceX Falcon 9, appears to once gain leave out the very significant launch assurance subsidy which ULA receives irrespective of how often its boosters actually fly.

The second point is related.  As a NRO launch, the cost for today’s booster is not included in the publicly disclosed numbers which make up the EELV budget, and neither is the amount the NRO contributes to the launch subsidy.

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