Atlas V launches NROL 39

WASHINGTON: Ever since the Air Force restructured its launch contracts for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program with the United Launch Alliance and SpaceX, the underdog, Elon Musk, has cried foul and is pressing his case on Capitol Hill and in the media.

The stakes got higher this morning during a sparsely attended hearing of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a powerful members of the SAC-D, made Musk’s argument that the Air Force has reduced launch competition through its restructuring. She told Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James that she and six other senators (one of them a Republican, Sen. Roger Wicker) had written Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to press him to ensure vigorous competition.

Here’e the crux of the senatorial argument:

“We strongly believe this proposal undermines the Air Force’s previous plan to begin to compete launches in 2015 and urge you to take all necessary steps to ensure the Air Force fulfills its commitment to provide meaningful competition opportunities this year for award in fiscal year 2015 and beyond.”

Bear in mind that Feinstein is particularly important to this debate. Not only is she a cardinal — a member of the appropriations committee — but from her perch on the intel committee she wields considerable power over the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), builder and operator of the nation’s spy satellites, as well as the National Security Agency (NSA) and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA). ULA and SpaceX are the companies that get paid to loft those often school-bus sized satellites into geostationary orbit. Until now, it’s been ULA, an unholy combination of defense giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing. SpaceX is extremely eager to get some of those contracts.

Feinstein and her fellow senators argue that “the Air Force’s recent budget proposal includes plans to compete zero Air Force missions in 2015 and to reduce the total number of missions to be competed from 14 to 7 during fiscal years 2015 – 2017.” This, they say, violates standing policy and “should be immediately reviewed.” That, of course, is exactly what Musk wants to happen so that some of those launches may be reinstated, giving him an earlier chance to get his launch vehicles certified. That would bring substantial amounts of cash flow to his organization. While SpaceX may be cheaper, no heavy launch is ever cheap. The cost of a single ULA launch under the EELV program is around $200 million.

To give their arguments some heft, the senators remind Hagel that the “EELV program has incurred massive cost overruns since the United Launch Alliance was formed in 2006. Since 2011 alone, the amounts budgeted by the Air Force for an average of six satellite launches per year has grown by 60 percent.”

They kindly note that “the unit price to the Air Force had risen nearly $200 million since fiscal year 2014 at a time when the previous plan promised serious savings to the Air Force. These increased costs in a difficult budget environment are a clear indication as to why these launches should be competed.”

But the Air Force secretary voiced strong support for competition. James told Feinstein that the launches had not been curtailed for any reason but the fact that US satellites are lasting longer than expected and, thus,  fewer launches are needed.

Strangely enough, here’s a statement from Elon Musk we got mid-afternoon, a few hours after the hearing ended, mentioning Feinstein’s letter.

“The bipartisan letter from Senator Feinstein and others points out the need for greater competition at the Department of Defense in the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) Program. Increasing fair competition in the EELV program is a smart decision that would not only improve efficiency and optimize budgets, but also eliminate America’s reliance on Russian made engines which, in light of the crisis in the Russia, is a direct threat to our nation’s security.”

Given the sharp curtailment of relations between the United States, NATO and Russia, it seems unlikely the Russians would supply parts or new engines for the RD-180 Russian-made engines that power the Atlas V rockets commonly used for these launches.

However, an industry source told me recently that ULA has two-and-a-half years worth of engines in the United States. “We have many more on contract with deliveries beginning in November,” the source said.

Feinstein told James at the hearing that the SpaceX rocket is “an American rocket and that has a great deal of appeal to the American people.”

Falcon Heavy

“ULA has no substitute for the RD-180, but the Delta IV is an alternative. And, while it’s never happened, production of the RD-180 here in the US has always been an option and remains so.”

This part of the situation got particularly interesting late this afternoon when news broke that NASA has suspended all contacts with the Russians. Without the Russians giving us a lift, we can no longer get astronauts to the International Space Station. But the memo breaking off contacts with the Russians specifically excepted “operational International Space Station activities,” which would seem to allow American astronauts to ride the Russian Soyuz rockets to the space station since those rockets are launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.


  • Pete Zaitcev

    An interesting part for me here is that nobody wants to fleece the taxpayers at ULA. After merger, the management duly closed redundant plants and fired workers, and the savings were realized. Only after a period of time, prices started raising. It was like magic.

    Also! Even if Musk does not succeed, his mere rabble-rousing already made ULA to wake up. For many years we heard that there was no alternative to RL-10 engine, which costs 30 million: 2 to 3 times more than much larger and more powerful RD-180 engine even after Russians jacked up the price several times. As soon as Musk started flying his Falcon 9 rocket, ULA started working with XCOR on the new upper stage engine, which is going to be 10x cheaper than RL-10. Magic again!

  • Gary Church

    Space X is the worst thing that ever happened to space exploration. This over-hyped cheap and nasty hobby rocket game is nothing but a scam to subsidize tourist rides for the ultra-rich. Zero-G playboy clubs are the end goal. There a presently two rockets that are top of the line for launching military payloads- the Atlas and the Delta. The Atlas uses surplus Russian engines in the first stage and gets an edge in price that way. The Delta uses a much more efficient U.S. hydrogen engine- the RS-68.
    As for the replacement for the RS-25; more hype- like the monstrosity 27 engine Falcon “heavy.” Which pretends in press releases to be the new Saturn V. It is far from being anything close to a Saturn V.
    The SLS is the only HLV, Heavy Lift Vehicle, in development and due to political maneuvering is a football and sadly underfunded. It is, like Obi-wan Kenobi, our only hope- of ever getting back into deep space. The Orion spacecraft will be riding on top of a Delta at the end of the year. Musk has a legion of sycophants that wail and gnash their teeth at any mention of anything being acceptable except SpaceX so of course they hate Orion and SLS. They also demonize NASA even though Musk actually just rides NASA’s coat tails for every launch and gets most everything he needs to run his business for free or at cursory charge from NASA. It is a scam. It just goes to show what making the right political contribution can get you. And how much damage it can do a treasured national capability.

    • Tombomb123

      great joke

      • Gary Church

        The first Musk worshipper has arrived.

    • Rocketman

      I take it you have a bunch of Boeing and Lockheed stocks about to loose a bunch of value…

      I’ll happily keep my spacex stocks and eat ULA for lunch!

      • Gary Church

        Second Musk worshipper.

      • WulfTheSaxon

        “spacex stocks”?

        • ILikeFish

          Employee stock buys are common in private companies. They often have small investment rounds where you can cash out if you want.

          • Gary Church

            Musk employee?

          • ILikeFish

            I would never work for SpaceX. I enjoy spending time with my family.

    • cdevboy

      Gary, I agree that the Atlas and Delta are great rockets. The problem is that the folks at Lockheed and Boeing are playing the real scam, not SpaceX. There is no factual way to justify what they have done to launch costs or American competiton through the manipulation of their EELV Contracts. I will admit that the blame really goes to the Defense Department for both issues. After all any business’ main goal is to get as much as they possibly can for a product. Its up to the buyer to create a marketplace that forces costs to acceptable levels. In that sense ULA has far exceeded Spacex in a portion of the launch market competition i hope they remain the loser at. Don’t aim you anger at SpaceX for trying to change the marketplace, Blame the DOD for being as corruptible as Washington

      • Gary Church

        Oh I missed you, sorry; Musk worshipper number eight.

    • Jim

      If Atlas and Delta is so good, explain to me why US lost the entire commercial satellite launch market in the past 10 years. The reason EELV has two rockets is for them to complete with each other, the creation of ULA negated this purpose, this is why SpaceX should be allowed in the competition. And Atlas has Russian engines is very worrying given the current geopolitical situation, another reason to get more players in the game.

      The whole subsidizing tourist rides for rich argument is crazy on so many levels, not even worth arguing.

      Congress has been underfunding commercial crew for years in order to fund SLS/Orion. Which is more important, funding US companies to send US astronauts to ISS or funding a rocket which NASA couldn’t afford and has no mission?

      • WhySoAngry?

        Not true. The Air Force has paid ULA to specifically maintain both the Atlas and Delta product lines in case of a failure of one, in which case there would still be guaranteed access to space for the military – nothing about them competing with each other, which doesn’t even make sense under one company. This is the main reason why the ULA unit price continues to rise and did not fall with the merger as the Air Force subsidizes ULA to work both. Once the Air Force authorizes SpaceX for launches, that subsidy for ULA will no longer exist, and ULA will likely restructure to one or a new product, which will need to be cheaper to compete. SpaceX will then have to take on extra cost and oversight to meet the Air Force’s strict guidelines. It’ll even out at a cheaper level for the government, but will likely be tight competition between the two companies. Go free market.

        • Gary Church

          The free market aint free. You are deploying the old “free market” smoke screen of double talk and technobabble. It won’t work on this website; defense projects make a mockery of your illusory free market.

      • Gary Church

        Fourth Musk Worshipper.

        • Calin Way

          Does this really contribute to the conversation? I mean really, come on man.

          • Gary Church

            The spacex fan club can patrol the internet and bury any negative comments with a thousand of their own then I can at least call it like it is. Come on man….you know it’s true.

          • Calin Way

            Even still, there is no need for you to call out every single comment that goes against your opinion calling them a Musk Worshipper. There is something about using tact when commenting online that gives you a certain amount of credibility and respect; you are obviously lacking in many of these areas the way you seemingly treat people.

            I will stop feeding the troll now.

          • Gary Church

            You have no idea what I have been through with these people or you would not be so critical of my lack of “tact” and brand me a troll. But I think I made my point and since the moderator is deleting my replies now I will quit while I am ahead.

          • Calin Way

            You are right because you won’t create an account due to your trolling ways. You don’t want to have a shred of accountability that someone could use against you.

          • Calin Way

            So when I get notifications that you are still commenting is says Gary Church (Guest) because you ‘block’ your account. Yeah, okay buddy.

          • Gary Church

            Guest or block, there is no difference except in your mind….buddy. I can’t seem to get a word in anymore. Oh well. I guess the SpaceX fan club wins again.

          • Gary Church

            And since there is no other reason for you to suddenly appear and excoriate me as a “troll” then…….welcome Musk worshiper number TEN.

      • Gary Church

        The SLS has a mission- it is just not making money for Elon Musk that is the problem.
        The US “lost” nothing. The commercial launch market has been launching satellites on the cheapest launchers available. Musk has not been available. SpaceX rarely launches on schedule and has yet to establish any heritage. ULA has had over 60 successful launches to date.
        Atlas having Russian engines is only worrying to those who believe the hype.

    • Fingersoup

      SpaceX aside, SLS is a failure anyway you look at it.

      • Gary Church

        Fifth Musk worshipper.

    • gunther

      Nothing but trash talk…

      • Gary Church

        Sixth Musk worshipper.

        • Musk _wrshpr85

          Musk Demonizer

    • US PATRIOT!!!

      nobody can be so blind and narrowminded on purpose. i can guess where your interests(money )lie.shame on you Mr Gary!!!shame on you.

    • Julian Cox

      @Gary Church

      It is not very complicated. ULA is a private American corporation right?

      ULA cannot compete in terms of technology and they cannot compete in terms of price with another private American corporation.

      I do not agree that it is patriotic to see the Airforce over-paying – Especially when the savings are vast, sufficient to make a material impact on buying more weapons, increasing servicemen pay or just be saved to reduce the budget deficit. Even more so considering that a great deal of ULA’s income is derived from taking profits on sending US defence dollars to foreign subcontractors including funding potential adversaries and advancing their weaponizable R&D instead of concentrating American resources on American programs.

      It is mind bogglingly embarrassing that the ULA has no ability to produce the engine for the Atlas 5 without stooping to reverse engineer someone else’s design doubtless without the inventors consent. This the kind of behaviour we abhor in the Chinese. Americans are better than that no? See SpaceX.

      The strategic readiness of ULA is also bunk. SpaceX remains strategically ready owing to the ability to garner a full manifest in the commercial launch business due to a combination of profitability and competitive pricing. Nobody needs to gift SpaceX $1 billion dollars of taxpayers money to stand around waiting for the chance to overcharge the Airforce.

      I find the whole idea of the ULA to be absolutely unsupportable – they cannot even compete with ArianeSpace, let alone SpaceX and SpaceX is considerably more American than either of them.

  • Chernenko

    Space X is pissed because Orbital sciences Corp, is taking a piece of the ISS resupply pie. This reminds me of the time EADs won the tanker contract and Boeing cried their eyes out.

    • ILikeFish

      This has nothing to do with the ISS or even NASA. This has to do with Air Force contracts.

      • Gary Church

        Seventh Musk Worshipper.

        • ILikeFish

          You are the only person in this particular comment thread talking about Elon Musk. . .

          • Gary Church

            Anyone can click on your name and read your comments and understand that you worship the ground Musk walks on. How stupid do you think people are? only person…..puh-leez.

          • ILikeFish

            I repeat: You are the only person in this particular comment thread talking about Elon Musk.

            I could have written a love letter to him in the last 100 comment threads I have posted in and it would still be true. You are interjecting every conversation with “elonmuskelonmuskelonmusk”. It’s kinda weird.

          • ILikeFish

            *cough* projecting *cough*

          • Gary Church

            I am not being allowed to call this what it is. The word is verboten to the moderator I guess. But anyone reading this thread can guess what is going on here. There are several people who have never commented on this site before that were alerted by a key term (SpaceX) and showed up with the specific goal of burying any criticism associated with that term. I am not projecting.

          • ILikeFish

            I once had a Facebook friend (I didn’t know her very well in real life) that would comment on internet articles using Facebook without unckecking “auto post to my wall”. They would then, obviously, show up in my news feed. I sometimes commented on them if I had something useful to say.

            She apparently thought this was unacceptable and sent me several messages claiming I was stalking her. I explained that she must not understand that people tend to comment on stuff you post to their feed.

            This is a comment section on an article about SpaceX where people are commenting about. . . SpaceX. If 1000 separate people with egregiously positive views of SpaceX all want to comment on an article about SpaceX that’s fine. I say good on SpaceX for marketing themselves positively. ULA could learn a few things.

            Anything that helps the progress of human expansion into space is a good thing to me. SpaceX has a lot of talent.

          • Gary Church

            Uh-huh. Fill it up….fill up the whoooooole page. Real marketing talent.

          • Colin Clark

            Gary, please stop appearing to act like someone who needs banning.

            Last warning. You know how to behave. Please do.

          • Gary Church

            Okay. I made my point.

          • US PATRIOT!!!

            Musk worshipper??sure why not!you are ‘lets cheat the most out of the goverment kind of guy. Gary i do hope you are not an american.

          • Gary Church

            Musk worshipper number nine.

          • US PATRIOT!!!

            nobody likes you Gary….log off and stay home with your rabbits.

    • Gary Church

      Just like I said, a legion of groveling sycophants that patrol the internet looking for any criticism of their space god Elon.

    • Andrew Gasser

      This is unequivocally and completely FALSE.

      SpaceX has their share of the CRS contract. They are in the middle of honoring that contract. If there is another contract SpaceX, Orbital, and others will have the ability to bid.

  • Adam

    ULA can build the RD-180 in America if they need to, sure. But estimates are that doing so would increase costs by 50%, so it’s an illogical option.

    • Gary Church

      We have the RS-68 and the Delta- we don’t need the RD-180 and the hobby rocket is far inferior to the ULA launchers. The SpaceX fanatics can post a million comments but that house of cards is going fall apart sooner or later. The sooner SpaceX goes out of business the better it will be for space exploration.

      • Andrew Gasser

        The RS-68 and Delta family of rockets is inherently more expensive than the RD-180 and Atlas family. It should also be said that the F9vX family is less expensive than the Atlas family. However, if you look a TTW and usable mass, F9xX more resembles a Delta II class of vehicle.

        The FH will cost at least three times less than a Delta IV Heavy and about 1/2 of an Atlas V.

        These are game changers.

        I wish no one to go out of business. I know there is enough room in the market for ULA, Orbital, SpaceX, and others.

        • Gary Church

          RS-68 is not “inherently more expensive”; it has inherently “more lift” using an excellent and supremely efficient U.S. rocket engine and that costs money. The RD-180 is Russian and does not have any advantage except it has been acquired cheaply as surplus from the cash-strapped failed soviet union turned private space agency. And that good deal is almost over. So now that Atlas needs a new engine the games on how to get tax dollars to build that engine- or for private space to get the money instead.

          • Gath Gealaich

            “RS-68 is not “inherently more expensive”; it has inherently “more lift” using an excellent and supremely efficient U.S. rocket engine and that costs money.”

            …assuming that costing money is the ultimate objective of spaceflight, then yes, Deltas are a win. But that’s not the mindset of the majority of car owners, and a rocket is not much more than a glorified car: it moves stuff from place A to place B.

      • Christopher Scott

        Hey Gary – how much is ULA paying you to post on these blogs?

        Its not that I’m against free speech, after all the Supreme Court confirmed 5 to 4 that corporations are people and money does not corrupt politics. It’s just that I’d like to earn a little something on the side myself. How does this sound for my first paid post?

        “SpaceX will never succeed, Elon Musk is an intellectual midget and Sarah Palin is as dumb as a bag of hammers.”

        Pop quiz – which of the above statements are false?

        Don’t hurt yourself trying to figure it out. Cheers ;0)

  • cdevboy

    Finally I have to ask Gary Church, Who Are You. Your defenses and arguments sound more like that of the drowning man who clutches no straw. I must ultimately presume you are one of the following (But check all that apply)
    A).An ULA groupy or whore (nothing against that crowd however)
    B) A Lobbyist for ULA
    C) A staff member for one of the congressman from Alabama who rabidly support ULA
    D) An ex Altas or Delta worker (If so, Thank You for a great rocket)
    E) Someone who was beat up by a rocket scientist as a child
    If you must label me as something (one of those kind of so helpful people), then go ahead and call me a musk or SpaceX Lover. I stand for anything that gives America choice, quality and opportunities that ULA and the old school boys have blocked so long. I am way old enough to remember how we all had the belief of going to space or being involved in a healthy space industry after the moon landings. As the only real launch providers during this 45 year period ULA has done nothing to push this dream.
    Fool me once shame on you, Fool me twice shame on me. So again, just who are you?

    • MarcVader

      You should not feed the troll, you know.

      • Gary Church

        Musk worshiper Eleven.

    • Gary Church

      I don’t think “whore” is acceptable language; that comment should be deleted.

  • Gary Church

    Finally I have to ask all you Musk worshippers, who are you? Why do you descend on any forum that criticizes SpaceX and completely drown out the discussion with a flood of long, drawn out empty ad hominem attacks?
    Anyone who looks at this page understands that I am the one person that is exposing the truth.

    And that truth is that Private Space is a scam to suck up as many tax dollars as possible while using NASA and old taxpayer funded technology to build and promote an inferior junk hobby rocket designed for ultra-rich tourist trips to Low Earth Orbit.

    It’s the truth.

    • Gary Church

      Ten Musk worshipers and counting.

      • Gary Church

        Eleven and counting. C’mon…BRING IT!!

    • US PATRIOT!!!

      we do not decent to any forum that critisizes spacex. we are just so many!!!!only a handfull of people are like you!!!nobody likes you….you are friendless,alone. ……

    • Musk _wrshpr85

      Musk Demonizer #1

      • Musk _wrshpr85

        One and counting…?

  • Gary Church

    Space clown wannabes are what private space is about. Legions of gullible space tourist wannabes patrolling the internet looking for any criticism of the their space god Elon.

    SpaceX is stealing tax dollars to support their tourism scheme. It is a
    cheap and nasty hobby rocket built to take rich tourists into low earth
    orbit and good for nothing else. They are deceiving the public with
    their ridiculous claims of being able to do everything cheaper and
    better and sooner or later the company will either fold or require
    massive infusions of more tax dollars to keep it afloat.
    SpaceX uses kerosene engines because it is cheap but the lower
    performance severely limits what the Falcon can place in orbit. And the
    comparatively tiny thrust of the Merlin kerosene engine further limits
    It is a hobby rocket sucking up tax dollars and is worthless dead end.
    Funds should go to projects capable of leaving the dead end of low earth
    orbit behind and there is only one such project right now- SLS. A
    program constantly lobbied against and demonized by the SpaceX fan club
    because SpaceX wants all the funding.
    SpaceX uses Kerosene because they want to pocket as many tax dollars
    as possible. A hydrogen turbopump has to be several times more powerful
    than a kerosene pump and is very difficult and expensive to engineer.
    But SpaceX is cheap and nasty and is not going there. Their solution is
    to spread this complete fabrication that kerosene is somehow a superior
    propellent. The reason we made it to the Moon was the hydrogen
    upper stages on the Saturn V. Hydrogen is what puts large payloads in
    orbit and that is why the space shuttle used it. The need for massive
    thrust in a first stage is provided by SRB’s; millions of pounds of
    thrust without a single moving part. The solid rocket booster lower
    stage and hydrogen upper stage combination is the optimum mix but the
    Falcon has nowhere near the same performance; vehicles that use solid
    rockets in the lower stage and hydrogen in the upper stage all lift far
    greater payloads.
    SpaceX is years behind schedule and have not transported any astronauts to the
    ISS- and are years away from it yet. From Forbes: The cost of certifying
    the Falcon 9 launcher and Dragon space capsule for use by astronauts
    has risen from an initial estimate of about $300 million in 2006 to a
    billion dollars today.
    They have not done it cheaper; this is a game
    they play with the numbers. If you look at the cost of their “up mass”
    compared to other launchers it is extremely high. They add in the mass
    of their reusable capsule when that mass is a waste of money- none of it
    is being placed in orbit. SpaceX also receives free or nearly free
    support from NASA engineers and use of NASA research and facilities. All
    their essential hardware- from the heat shield of their capsule to
    their engines to the friction stir welding used in the construction of
    their stages were all paid for already with tax dollars and developed by
    NASA. They have done very little by themselves yet portray themselves
    as innovators.
    SpaceX was founded on payback for political contributions and is years
    behind all the promises it made to transport astronauts to the space
    doubt it will ever carry a single person. The escape system is not
    really an escape system to start with; it was designed for keeping
    inflatable tourist space stations in orbit, not as a true launch abort
    system (which the SLS has and has been tested).
    SpaceX has been very successful as portraying itself as the underdog but anyone
    that looks closely can see behind the facade and find the scam.

    • Raffi256

      So what’s the alternative? SpaceX is the shortest-term option for getting people into orbit. They could fly people tomorrow if the safety standard was no better than the Shuttle (no escape system). SLS won’t carry people until 2021 at the earliest, and won’t put anything beyond earth orbit before 2030. Given the rate that SpaceX has been going, I’d put my money on them beating SLS by a decade or so. SLS just seems like protectionism to me, trying to keep contractors who supplied the Shuttle program afloat in politically expedient locations.

      • Gary Church

        Actually Raffi at the rate space X is going the sls might beat them. Spacex is way behind schedule and does not have a suitable escape system while the SLS does. As getting people into orbit that is really the most bizarre part of the whole mess; orbit is not space travel or space exploration anymore. It is going in endless circles at very high altitude. 40 years of space stations is enough; they are a dead end. It is time for a Moon base; that is the next step.
        And the only vehicle that is going to build a Moon base is SLS. The Falcon “heavy” is really a horrible contraption and all the fuel depot schemes would require a completely unrealistic number of launches- hundreds.

        • Gath Gealaich

          “The Falcon “heavy” is really a horrible contraption”

          Unlike the Delta Heavy which apparently gives you orgasms. 😀