Saturday, March 21, 2015

Atlas Shrugged

Click the arrow to watch the March 17, 2015 House Armed Services Committee hearing.

On March 17, 2015, the House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Strategic Forces held a hearing to discuss the consequences of Congress passing a law in 2014 that forbids the Department of Defense from acquiring launch services with any rocket using engines built in Russia.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 (H.R. 3979) became law on December 19, 2014.

Section 1608 in its entirety states:


(a) In General.— Except as provided by subsections (b) and (c), beginning on the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Defense may not award or renew a contract for the procurement of property or services for space launch activities under the evolved expendable launch vehicle program if such contract carries out such space launch activities using rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation.

(b) Waiver. — The Secretary may waive the prohibition under subsection (a) with respect to a contract for the procurement of property or services for space launch activities if the Secretary determines, and certifies to the congressional defense committees not later than 30 days before the waiver takes effect, that —

     (1) the waiver is necessary for the national security interests of the United States; and
     (2) the space launch services and capabilities covered by the contract could not be obtained at a fair and reasonable price without the use of rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation.

(c) Exception.—

     (1) In general. — The prohibition in subsection (a) shall not apply to either —

          (A) the placement of orders or the exercise of options under the contract numbered FA8811-13-C-0003 and awarded on December 18, 2013; or
          (B) subject to paragraph (2), a contract awarded for the procurement of property or services for space launch activities that includes the use of rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation that prior to February 1, 2014, were either fully paid for by the contractor or covered by a legally binding commitment of the contractor to fully pay for such rocket engines.

     (2) Certification. — The Secretary may not award or renew a contract for the procurement of property or services for space launch activities described in paragraph (1)(B) unless the Secretary, upon the advice of the General Counsel of the Department of Defense, certifies to the congressional defense committees that the offeror has provided to the Secretary sufficient documentation to conclusively demonstrate that prior to February 1, 2014, the offeror had either fully paid for the rocket engines described in such paragraph or made a legally binding commitment to fully pay for such rocket engines.

The upshot of all this is that the United Launch Alliance Atlas V, which launches from the Cape's Pad 41, uses RD-180 engines built by the Russian company NPO Energomash. RD-180s were used first on the Lockheed Martin Atlas III in 2000, then on the Atlas V in 2002. Lockheed Martin, a partner with Boeing in owning ULA, chose to use the RD-180s at the urging of the U.S. government which wanted to keep Russian engineers from defecting to hostile nations after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Russian Federation invaded Crimea in February 2014. The United States government in response began to impose economic sanctions on Russian government leaders and those who were close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. One of those was Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin, who heads Russia's aerospace sector.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin. Image source: The Moscow Times.

Rogozin threatened to cut off RD-180 deliveries to ULA, but as with many of his threats it turned out to be empty. As I wrote last May, he would only succeed in ending jobs for thousands of Russians who build the engines. Rogozin also threatened to end Russian involvement in the International Space Station after 2020, but in late February Russia announced its intention to join the U.S. in operating ISS through 2024.

Putin and Rogozin only succeeded in convincing Congress it's time to end any American business relationships with Russia for rocket engines, at least those to be used for launching military payloads. Congratulations.

Russian engines may still be used for non-military launches, such as the recent Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission for NASA that launched from Pad 41 on March 12. In December, Orbital Sciences ordered RD-181 engines for its Antares rocket, which launches its Cygnus cargo ship to the ISS from Wallops, Virginia.

Based on comments made by ULA CEO Tory Bruno during the March 17 hearing, it appears that ULA roughly has about forty RD-180s left in inventory. Each Atlas V launch uses one RD-180 engine.

According to a January 20, 2015 Space News article, ULA could order thirty more RD-180 engines for non-military launches such as for commercial customers.

But Bruno said that ULA intends to phase out the Atlas V for a new rocket dubbed the Next Generation Launch System (NGLS), and also phase out the Delta IV Medium class rocket that launches from the Cape's Pad 37.

The NGLS would use either new liquid oxygen and methane engines developed by Blue Origin, or as a backup liquid oxygen and RP-1 kerosene engines developed by Aerojet-Rocketdyne.

Bruno hopes to downsize ULA operations at the Cape to one launch complex that would be “mission agnostic” regardless of launch vehicle. Which complex will be used was not specified, and is currently under review.

The purpose of the hearing was to discuss what happens when a “gap” opens near the end of the decade, after RD-180 engines run out but before NGLS is certified by the U.S. Air Force for military use.

No one brought up what happens to ULA's commercial and civilian government customers.

The Atlas V is the launch vehicle for the Boeing CST-100, one of two NASA commercial crew vehicles (along with the SpaceX Dragon V2) scheduled to deliver astronauts to the ISS in 2017. ULA is currently building a service tower at Pad 41 to accommodate crew launches.

An artist's concept of the Boeing CST-100 atop an Atlas V at Pad 41. Image source: NASA.

Boeing is required to perform an uncrewed test flight in mid-2017, then a crewed demonstration flight by late 2017. After that, Boeing is guaranteed a minimum of two crew deliveries to the ISS under the current contract.

The CST-100 was certified by NASA for launch on the Atlas V. Presumably NASA would require a new round of certification before using CST-100 on the NGLS.

Other commercial companies plan on using the Atlas V.

Sierra Nevada has already acquired an Atlas V for a November 2016 uncrewed test flight with its Dream Chaser. Although Dream Chaser didn't get a commercial crew contract, Sierra Nevada recently submitted a bid for the next round of commercial cargo deliveries.

Orbital will use the Atlas V for one or two Cygnus cargo deliveries to the ISS in late 2015 / early 2016, until the Antares RD-181 upgrade is ready.

Video animation of the Atlas V launching a Boeing CST-100 capsule to a Bigelow habitat. Video source: theworacle YouTube channel.

In addition to the ISS, Boeing has a partnership with Bigelow Aerospace to deliver crew to Bigelow's B-330 expandable habitats which are projected to launch in 2018.

Both commercial crew companies are guaranteed a minimum of two and a maximum of six crew deliveries under this current round. Since the Atlas V may no longer be available by the end of the decade, it suggests that Boeing might only get two flights while SpaceX could get up to six to cover the gap.

If the United States government gets to the point where they have to choose priorities between launching military payloads or civilian, who gets the priority?

(The military, obviously.)

In January 2014, the U.S. Air Force awarded a thirty-six core block buy to ULA, a mix of Atlas V and Delta IV boosters. The mix isn't clearly specified, and Bruno said in the hearing he intends to phase out the Delta IV medium class configuration as the Atlas V is cheaper to fly. No one at the hearing raised the question, but it would seem possible that, as ULA approaches the gap, it might be possible for civilian launches to be bumped.

According to witnesses on the hearing's second panel, it could be five to seven years before NGLS is ready to fly.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), who chairs the subcommittee, pointed out that the gap would give SpaceX a de facto launch monopoly by the end of the decade. That isn't the fault of SpaceX. It's the fault of Congress for imposing a ban on RD-180 engines without thinking about the consequences.

Congress is also to blame for rejecting President Barack Obama's Fiscal Year 2011 NASA budget proposal to replace the RD-180 with a U.S. engine. According to a February 22, 2010 Space News article, “NASA says it intends to put enough money into first-stage propulsion development to produce 'a fully operational engine' by 2020, or possibly sooner if it can establish a partnership with the U.S. Defense Department.” But Congress said no.

It appears that the only way out of this mess is to relax the RD-180 ban, allowing ULA to stockpile enough engines until NGLS is certified.

In theory, the Boeing CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser are compatible with the SpaceX Falcon 9. So if the Defense Department calls dibs on remaining Atlas V boosters, perhaps it's more business for SpaceX.

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