U.S. Plans Satellite-Launch Contest as Russian Engines Dropped

The U.S. Air Force has crafted a strategy for military satellite launches that would end its dependence on Russian-built engines and culminate in a competition for as many as 28 missions, the service’s purchasing chief said.

The contest between at least two teams of rocket and propulsion companies, buttressed by Pentagon spending for new engine research, would cover launches from 2020 to 2024, according to an Air Force document and a statement by William LaPlante, the service’s assistant secretary for acquisition.

“The approach involves shared investment with industry toward the ultimate goal of two or more domestic launch service providers in innovative public-private partnerships,” LaPlante said in the statement Tuesday to a House Armed Services subcommittee in Washington. The service expects Pentagon approval of its strategy “in the coming weeks,” LaPlante said.

Rising U.S.-Russia tensions over President Vladimir Putin’s support of separatists in Ukraine spurred questions in Congress about dependence on Russian-made RD-180 engine on U.S. rockets. A joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., the two biggest U.S. government contractors, provides those launches using the RD-180 on the workhorse Atlas booster.

Billionaire Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, has cited that reliance in its campaign against what it has called a monopoly on military launches by the Lockheed-Boeing venture, United Launch Alliance LLC.

Replacement Engine

Responding in this year’s defense budget to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and support for the Ukrainian rebels, Congress prohibited the use of RD-180s on newly contracted launches and provided $220 million to help develop a replacement engine. The ban doesn’t apply to United Launch Alliance’s current 36-launch contract.

A “Request for Information” sent to companies on Feb. 18 sought additional data for a potential competition that would start in 2020 with five launches, including a classified mission for the National Reconnaissance Office and two missions for GPS-III satellites.

In addition to investing the $220 million in researching alternatives, the service will begin working with potential engine makers by June, LaPlante said.

“To the maximum extent practicable, rocket propulsion systems developed from these investments will be open to any launch provider,” he said.

Existing Systems

The initial launches after 2020 will use existing systems, such as those on United Launch Alliance’s Delta rockets and on SpaceX’s “soon to be certified” Falcon 9v1.1, LaPlante said.

The Air Force and Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX have said they expect the company to be certified by the service by June to launch military satellites.

SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell alternated in her prepared statement to the committee between touting the company’s expertise in space launches and challenging what she called United Launch Alliance’s dependence on U.S. subsidies.

The current Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program that depends on United Launch Alliance “is not fiscally healthy,” she said.

United Launch Alliance President Salvatore Bruno provided in his statement the joint venture’s view of the launch market and the status of efforts to develop a new engine with Blue Origin LLC, started by Amazon.com Inc.’s founder Jeffrey Bezos. Full testing is scheduled for 2016.

Bruno also outlined the Centennial, Colorado-based alliance’s partnership with Aerojet Rocketdyne Inc. to develop the kerosene-based AR-1 engine as a backup.

Subsidy Question

On alleged subsidies to United Launch Alliance, SpaceX’s Shotwell said Congress approved spending more than $376 million per launch in fiscal 2015 and an additional $1 billion to cover the Lockheed-Boeing venture’s fixed costs.

SpaceX plans to charge about $100 million for a similar mission and wouldn’t seek added support, she said in the statement to the panel headed by Republican Representative Mike Rogers of Alabama.

Bruno said the launch alliance is shifting to a “commercial pricing model,” that will offer the government more flexibility to add or reduce mission requirements.

“We will honor all our current contracting commitments, while reorganizing the company and begin to transition to more ‘commercial-like’ contracts,” he said.