House members ask Pentagon to stay the course on launch vehicle development

ULA Vulcan

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of 20 House members has asked the Defense Department not to alter the U.S. Air Force’s plans to fund development of new launch systems.

In the letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, dated April 10, the members said the Air Force should continue efforts to develop “complete, robust launch systems” rather than focus on specific components, such as an engine to replace the Russian-built RD-180. That approach, they argued, is the best way to end reliance on the RD-180 while providing assured access to space at reduced cost.

“Investing in the entire launch system through government and industry cost-share partnerships — rather than a specific component — is the fastest, safest, and most affordable way for the taxpayer to achieve these objectives,” they wrote. “Restricting funding only for a domestic engine will result in higher costs for the taxpayer and risks delays in ending use of the RD-180 engine.”

The Air Force made several Rocket Propulsion System awards in early 2016 to support development of both engines and full-scale vehicles, with the winning companies contributing one third of the cost of each award. In March, the Air Force issued a draft request for proposals (RFP) for the next phase of the program, called the Launch Service Agreement, with the full RFP expected this summer.

Under that program, the Air Force is expected to make up to three awards in early 2018 to fund continued development of those vehicles, including certification test flights. Among the companies expected to compete for those awards are Orbital ATK, which is developing a vehicle through its Next Generation Launch program; SpaceX, which received funding to support work on its Raptor methane engine last year; and United Launch Alliance, for its Vulcan vehicle.

Aerojet Rocketdyne also received a Rocket Propulsion System award from the Air Force last year to support work on the company’s AR1 engine, which the company is billing as a replacement for the RD-180 used on ULA’s Atlas 5. ULA has yet to make a formal decision on the engine that will power the first stage of Vulcan, but has indicated as recently as April 5 that Blue Origin’s BE-4 remains the frontrunner over the AR1.

The members who signed the letter include Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. Twelve Republicans signed the letter, led by Rep. Will Hurd of Texas. Five of the members who signed the letter are from Colorado, where ULA is headquartered, while four are from Washington state, where Blue Origin is based. Three members are from Texas, where both Blue Origin and SpaceX have test facilities.

Absent from the list of members who signed the bill are Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chairmen of the full House Armed Services Committee and its Strategic Forces Subcommittee, respectively. In February, the two sent a letter to Acting Secretary of the Air Force Lisa Disbrow and James MacStravic, performing the duties of the under secretary of defense for acquisition, calling on the government to have “full access to, oversight of, and approval rights over decision-making about any engine down-select for Vulcan (assuming they will be requesting government funding).”

In the letter, they argued that since ULA is accepting government funding to support the development of Vulcan, the government should also have insight into that process, “especially where one of the technologies is unproven at the required size and power.” That was a reference to Blue Origin’s BE-4, which will be the largest rocket engine developed to date using methane as a fuel, rather than the kerosene used by the RD-180 and AR1 engines.

Thornberry has since backtracked on the comments in that letter, telling reporters last month it was not his intent to micromanage subcontracting decisions.

Rogers, in a recent SpaceNews interview, said he was not satisfied with the pace of development of an RD-180 replacement, but also praised the capabilities of commercial launch companies. “My subcommittee, our full committee, this Congress, is committed to not stop until we have an American-made engine that can get our national security space assets launched,” he said.

DARPA and Space Systems Loral move ahead with satellite servicing program

SSL satellite servicing concept

WASHINGTON — Space Systems Loral announced April 12 that it has completed an agreement with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for a satellite servicing program that triggered a lawsuit from another company.

The announcement of the agreement for the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program came a day after DARPA filed a motion in federal court to dismiss a February lawsuit filed by Orbital ATK about the award to SSL.

The agreement confirms the scope of work of the RSGS program, where SSL will provide a satellite bus and DARPA the servicing payload. That spacecraft will then be launched to demonstrate a range of servicing technologies, including inspection, refueling and repair of satellites. After those tests, SSL will be able to use the spacecraft for commercial and government customers.

Even before signing the agreement, SSL was starting work on the RSGS program. “We’re already underway with our work,” Steve Oldham, senior vice president of strategic business development of SSL, said in a recent interview. “We set up a team once we were informed by DARPA that we were selected.”

Oldham said it would take about three and a half years to develop the RSGS satellite, with a launch in 2021. “It’s full steam ahead as far as we’re concerned,” he said.

DARPA and SSL moved ahead with the project despite a lawsuit filed by Orbital ATK against DARPA Feb. 7, a day after DARPA inadvertently, and briefly, posted the award to SSL.

In the suit, Orbital ATK alleged that the RSGS contract would “waste hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to develop robotic satellite servicing technology” already being developed in the private sector, running afoul of national space policy. Orbital ATK, which bid on the RSGS program, is developing its own satellite servicing system called the Mission Extension Vehicle.

Orbital ATK also argued that the contract funded a foreign company, as SSL is owned by MacDonald , Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., a Canadian company.

In an April 11 motion filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Assistant United States Attorney Antonia Konkoly, representing DARPA in the suit, requested that the court dismiss the case for a lack of subject matter jurisdiction and a lack of claims.

In the motion, Konkoly argued that the provisions of the national space policy are not enforceable in the courts. “However, as the [national space policy] derives from neither a statutory mandate nor a congressional delegation of lawmaking authority to the executive, this directive is simply a ‘managerial tool’ for the executive branch, and does not create a legal framework enforceable by the judiciary,” the filing states.

A hearing on the motion is scheduled for May 5 in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia.

The motion does not address Orbital ATK’s concerns about SSL’s ownership, but Oldham said in an earlier interview that all the work on the RSGS program will be done at SSL’s facilities in California. “The activity, we’ve committed to DARPA, will be part of a U.S.-owned company,” he said.

MDA announced in 2016 the formation of a U.S. operating company, SSL MDA Holdings, to allow it to pursue U.S. government work. That holding company will eventually also include DigitalGlobe, the commercial remote sensing company MDA announced Feb. 24 is was acquiring.

SSL separately announced April 12 three new members of the executive team for its SSL Government Systems business unit, intended to win business with the U.S. government. Richard White, hired by SSL in October 2016 as senior vice president of government systems, was named president of SSL Government Systems. The company also hired Robert Zitz as senior vice president and chief strategy officer and Tim Gillespie as vice president of business development for national programs.

Orbital ATK’s lawsuit against DARPA is separate from one SSL filed against Orbital ATK March 23. In that suit, SSL alleges Orbital ATK damaged the company when one of its employees accessed proprietary information on a NASA server regarding a satellite servicing technology project SSL had with the agency.

Orbital ATK, while acknowledging that the data breach took place, said it followed best practices to address the problem and would “vigorously” defend the suit. Court records show no action on the case since SSL filed the lawsuit.