[Via Satellite 08-05-2015] The U.S. Air Force wants to manage the transition to competing launches “very carefully,” now that two companies are certified to conduct missions for national security payloads. According to Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) at the Air Force Space Command, the military branch is in the second of a three-stage acquisition strategy directed to reach a state of competition as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality. This means greater scrutiny for SpaceX following its June 28 Falcon 9 mishap, and for United Launch Alliance (ULA) as it morphs the Atlas 5 into Vulcan.
Speaking July 31 at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event, Greaves said the Air Force does not want to rush through bringing about competition, as mistakes made now would certainly cost the government — and hence taxpayers — more later on. Citing Air Force studies on the cost of mission assurance, Greaves said being intentionally deliberate on mission assurance adds about 3 to 5 percent to the cost of missions in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program — a small amount compared to recovering from a preventable catastrophic failure involving the loss of a billion dollar spacecraft. The Air Force is keeping this in mind as it nears the point of competing its first launch in more than a decade.
While language directing the U.S. Air Force to pursue competition was written down in legislation several years ago, a domestic launch market to foster such competition was nonexistent. This changed with the introduction of SpaceX, which, after a lengthy and embattled certification process, proved to the Air Force that it could meet military standards for launches with its Falcon 9 rocket. But both SpaceX and ULA, the latter of which has held a strong grip on the defense launch business, are evolving their launch vehicles, making it imperative for the Air Force to monitor the transitional process for both companies in order to maintain assured access to space.
For SpaceX, the launch failure with the Falcon 9 for Commercial Resupply Services mission seven (CRS-7) for NASA drew immediate Air Force attention. Greaves said SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell was in touch with him within minutes of the mishap. Greaves affirmed that SpaceX will still be able to compete, but he cautioned that the Air Force will be diligently watching as the company reviews the incident.
“With the mishap of the Falcon 9, there have been questions regarding the Air Force’s approach to overseeing that mishap investigation and how we would support return to flight of the Falcon 9 for Air Force missions … we will ensure that we hit the flight failure hard [and] understand it in-depth as we would for any other certified provider before we return to flying,” he said.
SpaceX is running the investigation on the launch failure with oversight from the FAA. Greaves said the Air Force was invited from day one to follow the investigation. As a result of the mishap, SpaceX pushed back the debut of the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle until 2016. Greaves said the certification process for this vehicle is just beginning. SpaceX is also working on an upgraded version of the Falcon 9 that Greaves said the Air Force is also assessing to determine if it requires a complete new certification or not.
Incumbent launch provider ULA will need a new vehicle certification too as it transitions from the venerable Atlas 5 to the more commercially aggressive Vulcan. Stemming from sanctions and increased geopolitical tension between the U.S. and Russia after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Congress directed the company to switch the Russian-built RD-180 engine for a domestically produced alternative. ULA partnered with Blue Origin to replace the RD-180 with two smaller BE-4 engines. Blue Origin was already three years into developing the BE-4 when the companies announced their partnership in September 2014, and anticipates full-scale testing in 2016 with a first flight in 2019. Greaves remained circumspect of this progression, however.
“In our research we assess that industry timelines predicting complete rocket propulsion systems by 2019 are aggressive. History has consistently shown that the developing, testing, and maturing an engine takes six to seven years, with another year or two beyond that to be able to integrate into the launch vehicle. Testing in particular is essential to successful engine development, and it takes time,” he said.
The Air Force intends to compete an increasing number of missions in the years to come, starting with a Global Positioning System 3 (GPS 3) satellite for which it issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) in May. Greaves said the Air Force is targeting August to release the final RFP, which could result in an award by the end of the year.
Greaves said the Air Force’s plan to introduce competition started with its block buy of 36 rocket cores from ULA while simultaneously certifying new entrants. Phase 2 is further split into four phases. The first is technical maturation and reduction of highest risk aspects of developing a rocket propulsion system. Second is a shared investment in rocket propulsion systems, for which the Air Force released an RFP in June. “We contemplate that awarding a portfolio of up to four agreements worth a total of $160 million,” said Greaves, adding that because they are to encourage commercial systems, the agreements require a non-government investment to cover at least a third of the cost going forward.
The third step is to transition investments in propulsion systems to launch systems. Greaves said the Air Force plans to release this RFP later this year with awards in the spring of 2016, hopefully using funding from the fiscal year 2016 budget.
“Additionally, launch system development will include technical and programmatic reviews and demonstrations including component, subscale or full scale testing. We intend for these activities under these awards to occur in parallel with certification activity for the launch systems to minimize the time between the end of development and the use of the systems for national security space launch,” he added.
The fourth step is acquiring launch services using certified systems while “on ramping,” or bringing into the fold, new launch systems as they complete certification. Finishing this last step of phase two would usher the Air Force into the final phase of its plan.
“This time of transition must be managed very carefully to both control costs while maintaining our space capabilities,” said Greaves. “Phase three will be a fully competitive launch environment. And make no doubt there have been some questions on this but we are moving very fast on this. However, as Dr. LaPlante [assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition] said earlier this month, if you want to go really fast, you need to start slow.”
Greaves said the end goal is to have two or more launch providers for EELV, but added that the Air Force is also developing a contingency plan to “off ramp” if this method does not work, in order to develop and deliver a rocket propulsion system organically.
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