United Launch Alliance is close to securing a five-year commitment worth as much as $9 billion from the Defense Department, but it may have lost its near-monopoly on military launches Wednesday.
The Pentagon authorized the Air Force to purchase at least 36 ULA booster cores — the main component of satellite-launch rockets — in an authorization memo issued Nov. 26. In an effort to promote competition, the memo also authorized the Air Force to buy up to 14 booster cores from ULA competitors.
“I direct the Air Force to aggressively introduce a competitive procurement environment,” wrote Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, in the authorization memo.
The memo clears the way for the U.S. Air Force to negotiate the launch contracts with ULA, a process that could take months.
ULA competitor Space Exploration Technologies announced Wednesday it won two missions. The Air Force awarded the missions — one for the launch of a climate satellite and the other a test mission — under a program designed to encourage new entrants into the launch business. They are not among the 14 the Pentagon authorized.
For SpaceX, there may be a catch.
The Defense Department uses Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles, certified medium- and heavy-lift rockets that meet rigorous design and performance standards. The SpaceX missions announced Wednesday require EELV certification, as do the 14 authorized in the Pentagon memo.
The only certified EELVs are the Atlas V and the Delta IV, both assembled in ULA’s 800-employee Decatur facility. The Air Force, which coordinates all Defense Department launches, is ULA’s main customer.
A deep-space climate observatory satellite, called DSCOVR would launch aboard a Falcon 9 in late 2014, California-based SpaceX said. The Space Test Program 2 satellite, labelled STP-2, would launch aboard a Falcon Heavy in mid-2015.
Billionaire Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, is the founder and CEO of SpaceX.
SpaceX has never launched a Falcon Heavy, which it claims will have twice the lift capacity as the next most powerful rocket, ULA’s Delta IV Heavy. The first Falcon Heavy test flight is planned for late 2013.
SpaceX has launched three Falcon 9 rockets, most recently in October when it launched an unmanned supply mission to the International Space Station for NASA. The rocket, which is not certified for EELV missions, carries a maximum payload of about 20,000 pounds.
According to SpaceX, “the two missions will support the EELV certification process for both the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.”
ULA may win some or all of the 14 launches designated for its challengers “if competition is not viable at time of need,” according to the Authorization Defense Memo.
“SpaceX deeply appreciates and is honored by the vote of confidence shown by the Air Force in our Falcon launch vehicles,” Musk said in a statement. “We look forward to providing high reliability access to space with lift capability to orbit that is substantially greater than any other launch vehicle in the world.”
Chris Chavez, spokesman for ULA, said the block buy would help bring down costs. The multiple orders, he said, “offer the government significant savings, while stabilizing the industrial base, securing reliable launch services and providing the government a range of options for the future. ULA is uniquely positioned to continue to provide the lowest launch risk for critical, multi-billion dollar space investments.”
ULA does not disclose the price of its rockets. According to a published Federal Aviation Administration estimate that is consistent with Air Force budget numbers, the EELVs average about $250 million each. If so, the Air Force’s block buy would be worth about $9 billion.
Military satellites typically cost more than the rockets, so a botched launch has major financial and national-security ramifications.
ULA has launched 54 EELVs with near-perfect mission success.
ULA owes its existence to efforts to control the cost of launch vehicles. The Defense Department encouraged Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. to form the joint venture and consolidate production of Boeing’s Delta IV and Lockheed’s Atlas V.
Both companies had expected a commercial market for their rockets that never materialized, leading to lower volume and higher costs for their government customers.
ULA has been pushing for months to get the Pentagon to award the “block buy” committing to multiple launches during several years. CEO Michael Gass, in Decatur last week, said a block buy would help lower prices and spur investment in production improvements.
SpaceX bills itself as a less expensive alternative. Its website claims the price tag of the untried Falcon Heavy is $80 million to $125 million per launch. The medium-lift Falcon 9, SpaceX said, is priced at less than $60 million per launch.
SpaceX and ULA also are in direct competition to provide a rocket to taxi astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA.
ULA’s next scheduled launch is Tuesday, when an Atlas V will place an X-37B space plane into orbit for the Air Force.
|High School Sports||@DecaturPreps|