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.

Bruno: Vulcan engine downselect is Blue’s to lose

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos speaks in front of his company's New Shepard suborbital vehicle on display at the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs April 5. Bezos said the company still plans to start flying people on suborbital space tourism flights by the end of 2018, although the company has yet to start selling tickets or even setting a ticket price. Development of New Shepard, he said, is informing the company's plans for an orbital launch vehicle, New Glenn, that will use the same BE-4 engines that United Launch Alliance is considering for its Vulcan rocket. Credit: Chuck Bigger for SpaceNews

COLORADO SPRINGS — United Launch Alliance is prepared to select Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine for its Vulcan launch vehicle this year if the engine passes an upcoming series of tests, the company’s chief executive said April 5.

In an interview during the 33rd Space Symposium here, Tory Bruno said that tests of the BE-4 engine, scheduled to begin “very soon” at Blue Origin’s test site in West Texas, are the last major hurdle the engine must clear before ULA decides to use it on Vulcan.

“The economic factors are largely in place now and the thing that is outstanding is the technical risk,” Bruno said. “That’s why we keep talking about the engine firing.”

A major aspect of the engine tests, he said, is to determine the degree of combustion instability the BE-4 has when the engine starts. “Any time when you are developing a new rocket engine, any time you change the scale or the fuel, you are at risk of this phenomenon,” he said. The BE-4 engine is the largest engine developed to date that uses methane as fuel, rather than more common alternatives like kerosene or liquid hydrogen.

“We look first to the combustion instability as the chief technical risk that must be retired before we’d be able to pick an engine,” Bruno said. He anticipated a series of tests, lasting for several weeks, where the engine’s thrust is gradually increased to measure its performance and determine if it suffers from combustion instability.

Bruno said he was encouraged by tests of some key engine components, including the preburner, a smaller version of the main engine that powers the engine’s turbomachinery. “The good news is the preburner is running like a top,” he said. “We’re starting to get more and more confidence that we’re going to have a good experience when we run a full-scale engine.”

If the tests all go as planned, Bruno said ULA could be ready to formally select the BE-4 in as soon as 60 to 90 days. “But it could take longer,” he added. “It’s not on the calendar.”

Tory Bruno Jeff Bezos BE-4
Tony Bruno (left), Jeff Bezos and the BE-4 engine at 2014 press conference. Credit: SpaceNews/Brian Berger

Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin, confirmed in an April 5 interview that test of the BE-4 will start in the next several weeks. One engine is already at the company’s test site, with two more shipping there soon.

“We wanted to go into the test program hardware-rich,” he said. With those engines and other equipment at the test site, “we can move through the test program quite rapidly.” He said that testing would continue after ULA made its decision, with final certification of the BE-4 planned for late 2018 or early 2019.

While Bruno will make the decision about the engine, he will get plenty of advice. He said he recently established an independent non-advocate review (INR) team of outside experts to review the overall engine evaluation process. That team includes former Secretary of the Air Force Sheila Widnall; retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Susan Mashiko, former deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office; and Ray Johnson, former vice president for space launch operations at the Aerospace Corp.

Bruno said Congress also established a separate INR team, comprised of engineers from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, to review the engine selection process. “I was actually happy to hear that they did that,” Bruno said, adding that this team had access to the same data as ULA’s own review team.

Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin, confirmed in an April 5 interview that test of the BE-4 will start in the next several weeks. Credit: Tom Kimmel
Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin, confirmed in an April 5 interview that test of the BE-4 will start in the next several weeks. Credit: Tom Kimmel

Bruno added that he expected the Air Force would also seek access to the test data and provide ULA with its own opinion about the engine. “I will hear all of those opinions and it will be super easy if everybody says the same thing,” he said. “If they do not, then we will resolve that. And then we will make a choice.”

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 engine remains the alternative for Vulcan should the BE-4 run into technical problems. Development of the AR1 is 18 to 24 months behind the BE-4, he said, because it started later. “I have confidence they can get their engine to work” because of its use of a more conventional fuel, kerosene.

Blue Origin, though, has the financial edge. Bruno said ULA already has a firm fixed-price deal with Blue Origin for “a large enough quantity” of engines that covers initial Vulcan missions. Those engines will be produced initially at Blue Origin’s factory in Kent, Washington.

“Their production capability actually looks quite good,” Bruno said of those initial BE-4 engine plans. “My INR heads came back to me and said they are very comfortable with that production capability already.”

Later engines will be built at a separate facility Blue Origin plans to develop in the next few years that will be designed to produce dozens of engines a year. “We’re in the process of site selection for a full production site,” Meyerson said. He declined to identify the locations being considered, but said a decision should be made in the next six months.

Bruno said that he expected to decide on the Vulcan engine this year, but wouldn’t be rushed into one. “I get to make this decision, like, once. This is a big decision and if you don’t get it right, it’s very hard to come back from that,” he said. “So I’m going to take my time and listen to all these experts and stakeholders and then do it.”

Air Force reveals plan for up to 48 launches per year from Cape Canaveral

Following the successful launch of a Delta IV rocket with the WGS-9 satellite Saturday night, Brigadier General Wayne R. Monteith and Major General David D. Thompson of the U.S. Air Force discussed the 45th Space Wing’s plan to ramp up to 48 launches per year – a feat made possible in large part due to the introduction by SpaceX of the new Autonomous Flight Termination System and the increasing and booming commercial launch market.

Breaking barriers – U.S. Air Force celebrates 70th anniversary, 67 years at CCAFS:

As part of the celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force, the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) and the 45th Space Wing of the Air Force initiated a series of year-long celebrations on Saturday night with the launch of a Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-9 satellite.

Lifting off into the crystal clear night sky above Central Florida, the Delta IV marked the 3,550th rocket launch from the CCAFS and the fourth flight from the Cape this year.

With four flights under its belt, the 45th Space Wing is now preparing for the remaining 31 launches on this year’s manifest – the next two of which are scheduled within three days of each other on 24 and 27 March.

The 24 March launch will see a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, flying in its 401 configuration, deliver the Cygnus OA-7 mission to the International Space Station on behalf of Orbital ATK.

Three days later, on 27 March, SpaceX is – at time of publication – planning to launch the SES-10 mission on a Falcon 9 from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center – a launch which will mark the first time SpaceX reuses a flown Falcon 9 first stage.

From a dozen launches per year to 48:

In the past ten years, the CCAFS and Kennedy Space Center combined have seen anywhere from between 7 to 18 launches per year, with the lowest of those numbers coming in 2008 and the highest in 2016.

However, this year alone, the CCAFS and the 45th Space Wing of the Air Force plan to nearly double its 2016 number, with 35 total launches manifested, 28 of them being commercial missions.

As Major General David D. Thompson, Vice Commander, Air Force Special Command, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, stated in a post-WGS-9 launch briefing, “The commercial spaceflight market is just blooming.

The Maj. Gen. specifically noted that the 45th Space Wing is doing everything possible to reduce the amount of time it takes to reconfigure assets between launches – something that will eventually allow the Cape to increase from its already packed schedule of 35 launches this year to an eventual goal of 48 launches per year in the “next couple of years.”

Of particular note toward this goal was Brig. Gen. Wayne R. Monteith, Commander, 45th Space Wing and Director, Eastern Range, Patrick Air Force Base, Florida.

Brig. Gen. Monteith specifically discussed how the 45th Space Wing has been working to increase its capabilities to support such a robust schedule.

Speaking after the Delta IV WGS-9 launch, Brig. Gen. Monteith stated, “This launch here represented the fourth launch this year.  We launched just 66 hours ago the Falcon 9.  

“We also have another launch, an Atlas, in 6 days, and then 3 days after that we have another Falcon with SES-10.  

“So we will do four launches within three weeks.  That’s just an incredible team effort.”

In many ways, the 45th Space Wing’s launch cadence increase plans are owed to SpaceX’s introduction of the new Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS).

The AFTS debuted this year from LC-39A with the Falcon 9 launch of the CRS-10 mission to the ISS for NASA.

“When we talk about breaking barriers, a good example of that here is the new Autonomous Flight Termination System.  It flew on the Falcon 9 on CRS-S10 and this last Falcon mission for Echostar that we had was the last time they plan on flying a traditional flight termination system.  

Under a traditional FTS, there is a person “in the loop”.

As the Brig. Gen. explained, “We have now gone completely autonomous with that system.  So with CRS-10 and all others with the AFTS, we’re able to reduce our operational footprint by 60% on day of launch.

“So we came down 96 people that don’t have to be sitting on console.  And the cost to the customer is cut in half.  

“We are driving out every bit of inefficiency that we have.”

Moreover, Brig. Gen. Monteith stated that this new AFTS combined with two operational SpaceX pads at Kennedy and the CCAFS will allow the company to launch two Falcon 9 rockets – one from 39A and one from SLC-40 – within 16 to 18 hours of each other.

“When pad 40 is up and operating, [it will] give us the capability of launching a Falcon from both pad 39A and pad 40 on the same day,” stated the Brig. Gen.

“Now if we did that and we had an Atlas V or a Delta IV launch, within 36 hours we could do three launches.  So that’s how we’re going to get to 48 launches a year.  It’s a great problem to have.”

In practicality, this goal of the 45th Space Wing would result in an ability to “launch consistently every single week of the year with just four weeks of downtime,” stated Brig. Gen. Monteith.

Importantly, the 45th Space Wing’s ability to handle the increasing demand for launches within a short time frame was demonstrated earlier this month.

Originally, when the WGS-9 mission was scheduled to launch on 8 March, SpaceX booked a static fire for the Echostar XXIII Falcon 9 on 7 March in a test window that extended less than 24 hours prior to the Delta IV’s planned launch.

This ability to rapidly support two different enterprises across the 45th Space Wing is a critical necessity to accommodating as many launches as the Air Force is looking at.

Moreover, this eye toward greater efficiency comes at a time when SpaceX and ULA are set to be joined by at least one new launch service provider in the coming years: Blue Origin.

“Pad 36 is being operated by Blue Origin,” notes Brig. Gen. Monteith. “They have started horizontal construction.  We hope they’ll be starting vertical construction later this year.  

“Their factory at Exploration Park is coming along, and they just signed a deal for 6 launches with OneWeb.

“So we anticipate that they will be flying in the next few years, and we will add them to our host of launch vehicle providers that will be flying here off the coast as we drive to 48 launches a year.”

The Brig. Gen. also touched on this year’s upcoming Orbital ATK use of the Cape and Pad 46 for a scheduled 15 July launch of a Minotaur 4 rocket with ORS 5.

Brig. Gen. Monteith noted that beyond the current Minotaur 4 launch, there are no other plans for Orbital ATK to use the CApe, but he did note that such further use was “not out of the realm of possibility” – noting last December’s launch of Pegasus off the L-1011 as a return of Pegasus to the 45th Space Wing’s jurisdiction for the first time in 13 years.

However, while a great deal of work has already taken place and will continue to occur to prepare the Cape for this major increase in launch cadence, the ability to meet this new maximum number of launches per year is – as always – dependent on ULA and SpaceX’s rocket fleets’ abilities to meet this new demand.

(Images: U.S. Air Force, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Chris Gebhardt for

ULA Delta IV successfully launches WGS-9

United Launch Alliance’s first Delta IV launch of 2017 carried a Wideband Global Satcom spacecraft (WGS-9) into orbit Saturday. The lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station occurred at 20:18 local time (00:18 UTC), following a slightly delay related to the Swing Arm system at the pad.

Delta IV Launch:

Saturday’s launch will deploy the ninth satellite of the US Air Force’s Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) constellation. WGS-9, which was purchased for the Air Force by a group of other nations in exchange for access to the WGS system, will join the eight satellites already in orbit which launched between 2007 and 2016.

Boeing was awarded a contract to develop the WGS system – with two satellites and an option for a third – in 2001, with the first launch scheduled for 2004. The option in the contract was converted to a firm order for a third spacecraft early in 2003.

The WGS program – named Wideband Gapfiller Satellite until 2007 – was initiated to augment the Defence Satellite Communications System (DSCS), providing new and enhanced capabilities and replacing older satellites as they reached the end of their operational lives. WGS spacecraft provide more than ten times the bandwidth of their predecessors – with a single spacecraft having greater bandwidth than the entire DSCS constellation combined. DSCS and WGS would have been replaced by the Transformational Satellite System (TSAT) constellation, however this was canceled in 2009.

Even before TSAT was canceled, the Air Force had begun to expand WGS; increasing the planned number of satellites from three to five in 2006. The Australian government agreed to finance a sixth satellite in exchange for access to the whole constellation, and this was ordered in October 2007. From the fourth satellite onwards the spacecraft have been upgraded with radio frequency (RF) bypass functionality for applications requiring extremely high bandwidth, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) deployed on reconnaissance missions.

Four further satellites, including the WGS-9 spacecraft which will launch on Saturday, were ordered between 2010 and 2012. These are designated as Block II Follow-On missions. From WGS-8 onwards, the satellites have been equipped with an upgraded digital channelizers, almost doubling the available downlink bandwidth.

Built by Boeing, WGS satellites are based on the BSS-702 platform and designed for fourteen years of service. Each spacecraft is equipped with an Aerojet Rocketdyne R-4D-15 High Performance Apogee Thruster (HiPAT) to perform insertion into geosynchronous orbit and four Xenon-Ion Propulsion System (XIPS-25) thrusters for stationkeeping.

The WGS-9 satellite carries X and Ka-band transponders. The satellite will use a phased array antenna to provide eight jam-resistant X-band beams, while ten individual antennae will provide Ka-band beams. An additional X-band payload will be used to provide Earth coverage. The satellite can support 8.088 gigahertz of bandwidth, with an expected downlink speed of up to 11 Gbps.

The first WGS satellite, USA-195 or WGS-1, launched aboard an Atlas V 421 in October 2007. The second satellite was also deployed by an Atlas, launching in April 2009.

Beginning with the third launch – in December 2009 – the Delta IV has been used for all subsequent launches, flying in the Delta IV Medium+(5,4) configuration.

This version of the Delta IV uses a single Common Booster Core first stage, four GEM-60 solid rocket motors and a five-metre Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS).

The Delta IV was developed by Boeing under the US Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Boeing inherited the Delta IV design from McDonnell Douglas in a 1997 merger, having had its own EELV proposal rejected the previous year. The Delta IV first flew in November 2002, three months after Lockheed Martin’s rival design, the Atlas V, which was developed under the same program.

In 2003, following revelations that Boeing had illegally obtained tens of thousands of pages of documents from Lockheed Martin during the initial competition for EELV launch contracts, the Department of Defense (DoD) moved several launches which had been awarded to Boeing to the Atlas V and temporarily suspended Boeing from bidding for new launch contracts.

The dispute was resolved when the companies agreed to merge their launch operations, forming United Launch Alliance in December 2006 to offer Delta II, Delta IV and Atlas V launches to the US Government.

Saturday’s launch was the thirty-fifth flight of the Delta IV, which has achieved thirty-three successful launches in its previous missions.

The Delta IV Medium+(5,4) configuration has only been used for WGS launches. It is one of five configurations in which the Delta IV has launched; the Medium, which had a single core, no solid rocket motors and a four-metre DCSS, was the smallest version. Used for two launches in 2003 and a third in 2006, it is now effectively retired as no launches are scheduled and no new medium-class payloads are being assigned to the Delta.

The largest configuration, the Delta IV Heavy, uses three cores and a five-metre upper stage. Three intermediate, or Medium+, configurations – the M+(4,2), M+(5,2) and M+(5,4) – are used to launch intermediate payloads. These add two solid rocket motors, a five-metre upper stage and two further solid rocket motors respectively to the single-core vehicle.

United Launch Alliance intends to retire the single-core version of the Delta IV by 2019, with the Atlas V launching all medium and intermediate-class payloads until the introduction of a new rocket, Vulcan, which will replace both the Atlas V and Delta IV.

2016-11-30-153021The Delta IV Heavy will remain flying until Vulcan has been upgraded to carry the US military’s heaviest payloads, which can currently only fly aboard the Delta. Saturday’s launch will be the second-to-last flight for the Delta IV Medium+(5,4).

The Delta IV departed from Space Launch Complex 37B at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS). The Delta launch complex is built on the site of a pad which was used in the 1960s for early test flights supporting the Apollo program.

The original Launch Complex 37B was the site of the first orbital launch of the Saturn I rocket, SA-5, in January 1964, before five further launches with boilerplate Apollo spacecraft. After the Saturn I was retired, two Saturn IB launches were made from LC-37B, the first testing the rocket’s S-IVB stage in orbit and the second, Apollo 5, marked the first unmanned test flight of the Apollo Lunar Module.

The Saturn launch complex having been demolished in the 1970s, Delta’s launch pad at Complex 37 was constructed in preparation for the Delta IV’s maiden flight, which occurred from SLC-37B in November 2002.

Saturday’s launch began with ignition of the Delta IV’s RS-68A main engine, five seconds before the countdown reached zero. Burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, the RS-68A powers the Common Booster Core (CBC) that form’s Delta’s first stage. At the zero-second mark in the countdown, the four GEM-60 solid rocket motors ignited, and the rocket – whose mission number was Delta 377 – lifted off.

Seven seconds into its flight, Delta 377 began a series of pitch, yaw and roll manoeuvres to place it on course for orbit. The rocket flew east downrange along an azimuth of 93.46 degrees, passing through the area of maximum dynamic pressure – Max-Q – 46.1 seconds after liftoff.

The solid rocket motors began to burn out 92.8 seconds after launch, with boosters three and four burning out 2.3 seconds ahead of boosters one and two. The two pairs of boosters separated eight seconds after their respective burnouts.

Three minutes and 14.6 seconds into the mission, the payload fairing separated from around the WGS-9 satellite at the nose of the rocket. By this point, the rocket cleared the lower regions of Earth’s atmosphere and the fairing was no longer needed to protect the spacecraft.

The Common Booster Core completed its burn three minutes and 56.5 seconds after liftoff. The spent stage was jettisoned 6.6 seconds later. After stage separation, the second stage – a five-metre Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS) – deploy the extendible nozzle of its RL10B-2 engine ahead of ignition. The RL10B-2 ignited thirteen seconds after staging to begin its first burn.

The DCSS, which like the first stage burns liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, made two burns to deploy WGS-9 into its planned orbit, with a third burn after spacecraft separation to deorbit itself. The first burn was the longest, lasting fifteen minutes and 37.5 seconds, and established the rocket in an initial parking orbit. Nine minutes and 33 seconds after the first burn ends the second began, raising the apogee of Delta 377’s orbit. This burn lasted three minutes and 9.7 seconds.

Spacecraft separation occurred at 41 minutes, 45.6 seconds mission elapsed time, nine minutes and 10.3 seconds after the end of the second burn. WGS-9 was deployed into a supersynchronous transfer orbit with a perigee of 435 kilometers (270 miles, 235 nautical miles), an apogee of 44,372 kilometers (27,572 miles, 23,959 nautical miles) and an inclination of 27 degrees to the equator. From this orbit, the satellite will use its R-4D apogee motor to raise itself into geostationary orbit.

The second stage began its third and final burn twenty-nine minutes and 59 seconds after spacecraft separation.

This ten-second deorbit burn lowered its orbit’s perigee so that the stage reenters Earth’s atmosphere at the end of its first orbit.

Because of the orbit’s high apogee, the stage will take another eleven hours to complete this one revolution, while the Earth rotates underneath such that the stage will reenter over the western Pacific. ULA states that the expected impact time for any debris surviving reentry will be twelve hours, twelve minutes and 9.6 seconds mission elapsed time.

Saturday’s launch was the third of the year for United Launch Alliance, who conducted Atlas V launches in January and early March to deploy the SBIRS-GEO-3 missile-detection satellite and NROL-79 – a pair of Intruder signals intelligence satellites – respectively. ULA’s next launch is scheduled for next Saturday, with another Atlas V due to carry the SS John Glenn – Orbital ATK’s OA-7 Cygnus mission to resupply the International Space Station.

The next Delta launch is scheduled for September, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) JPSS-1 weather satellite lifting off aboard the penultimate flight of ULA’s venerable Delta II rocket. The Delta IV’s next launch will occur in October, with the NROL-47 satellite, which is expected to be a Topaz radar imaging spacecraft.

Only one further WGS satellite, WGS-10, is currently scheduled for launch. This is slated to lift off in 2019, aboard the final single-core Delta IV launch.

(Images via ULA).