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Atlas V 401 launch
The retirement of the Delta II has pushed many NASA science missions onto larger, and more expensive, Atlas V 401 launches, even if they don’t need the additional capacity. (credit: ULA)

Competition and the future of the EELV program (part 2)


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Summarizing the year in space for his blog, “The Once and Future Moon”, Paul Spudis memorably characterized 2011 as “Annus Horribilis.” For proponents of Mars science missions, much the same might already be said for 2012. Even though the Mars Science Laboratory rover is en route to what should be a nerve-shattering landing in August, the President’s fiscal year 2013 budget proposal confirmed rumors that the US is withdrawing from the joint European ExoMars missions in 2016 and 2018. After a steady progression of successful missions dating back into the late 1990s, new Mars exploration will likely draw to a halt after the launch of MAVEN in 2013. Disappointed supporters were quick to blame NASA’s remaining flagship mission, the James Webb Space Telescope, already years behind schedule and massively over-budget, for hoovering up nearly all the available science funds. While it is difficult to see the blame as anything but legitimate, JWST is not the only culprit. The ExoMars missions were also partly undone by the rapidly escalating costs of the Atlas V launch vehicles that comprised a significant portion of the US contribution to the project.

The ExoMars missions were also partly undone by the rapidly escalating costs of the Atlas V launch vehicles that comprised a significant portion of the US contribution to the project.

Following its first use as a NASA launch vehicle for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in August 2005, the Atlas V eventually supplanted the workhorse Delta II as NASA’s primary science launcher after the Delta II was effectively forced into retirement by the US Air Force and United Launch Alliance (ULA). They had a commitment to the EELV program, and the Delta II had its own relatively high fixed costs. Though necessary for larger projects such as MSL, the Atlas V is overkill for many smaller science missions, and while the decision to retire the Delta II may have benefited ULA, it presented NASA with a launch vehicle gap in a preferred mission class. In some cases, the only option was to proceed with a larger-than-required basic Atlas V 401 configuration anyway.

Now, however, soaring costs in the Air Force EELV program, which include both the Atlas V and the Delta IV, are severely impacting the future of NASA space science missions already reeling from budget cuts. Though a product of the Department of Defense, the increasing costs of EELV launchers are being blamed in part on the loss of overhead previously being covered by the Space Shuttle program. The solution proposed by United Launch Alliance, a monopoly-extending block buy of at least 40 vehicle cores, is the subject of both congressional scrutiny led by Arizona Senator John McCain, as well as a highly critical Government Accountability Office report published last fall. At the same time, two new launch vehicle families, with very different pedigrees, are drawing closer to offering relief to the increasing costs that will soon impact more than NASA’s space science program. The problems, and the possible solutions, highlight the broader choices facing an American space establishment heading into a future in which the only certainty appears to be constrained resources.

The magnitude of the problem came into focus when United Launch Alliance indicated that as part of its bid for NASA’s NLS-II launch contract, the cost for the Atlas V would be going up dramatically. Based on information presented in the minutes of a NASA Advisory Council Science Committee meeting last March, the MAVEN mission, scheduled to launch in 2013, cost $63 million more than NASA’s last contract for a similarly configured vehicle three years earlier. Even more striking, the same rocket would have cost 17% more for a 2016 launch, and 30% more for a 2018 launch. In fact, the rising costs of the Atlas V were sufficiently severe as to cause committee chairman Dr. Wesley Huntress to observe that “increased costs may force the agency to forgo mission content for vehicle prices.” The committee reached the depressing conclusion that “there will be a huge impact on the total number of missions which can be carried out in SMD.” Only one year later, the NAC predictions are being born out in a macabre spectacle, in which various interests, such as Mars and Outer Planet contingents, are pitted against each other in a scientific cage match.

Not only is the problem real, a close look at a NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) report issued shortly before the Advisory Council meeting suggests it could get much worse. In the report, OIG looked at the potential savings from using low-cost Minotaur launch vehicles for smaller missions in the future, such as the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) due to launch in 2013. In the case of the Minotaur, that lower cost derives from the rocket’s first stage, which is sourced from a decommissioned Peacekeeper ICBM and is in some sense of the word “free”, even though the launch itself, conducted by Orbital Sciences Corporation, still costs close to $50 million. Although it ultimately conceded to pressure to use the Minotaur, NASA’s strongly-worded response to the report is frankly commendable in underscoring the agency’s commitment to not endangering investments made by both Orbital Sciences and SpaceX in two new families of launch vehicles that hold the promise of offering less expensive launch services for Delta II and many Atlas V class missions.

It is not too great a leap to conclude that the same tradeoff affecting planetary exploration programs may soon be coming to the Commercial Crew program.

Of particular note, however, is what the report reveals concerning OIG’s assessment of further financial risk inherent in the Atlas V. In the report, OIG estimates the average cost of an Atlas V in coming years at approximately $206 million, as opposed to $111 million for a Falcon 9. The prices derived were not actual launch prices, but an approximation based on a number of assumptions applied equally, including a 10% annual escalation. The actual commercial launch prices currently offered by SpaceX are considerably lower, but that is not the whole story. The kicker is contained in a warning that, based on the Air Force history of charging NASA a “user fee” for its Delta II pad service, a similar user fee for the Atlas V could run as much as $128 million per launch. Alternatively, pursuant to National Security Presidential Directive 40, “U.S. Space Transportation Policy,” December 21, 2004, in the event the balance of EELV launches between DOD and NASA shifts, the space agency could expect to pick up the tab for a commensurate portion of the $1-billion-per-year subsidy ULA receives as the Launch Capabilities Contract. According to the report, this requirement would impose as much as an additional $100 million per launch. Consequently the “not to exceed price” NLS-II price actually bid for an Atlas V was $334 million.

It is not too great a leap to conclude that the same tradeoff affecting planetary exploration programs may soon be coming to the Commercial Crew program. With the ULA Atlas V chosen as the initial launch vehicle for three of the four funded participants—Blue Origin, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada—the odds would seem very good that the Atlas V will find a role. If, by some unexpected turn of events, the budget profile allows two or more winners to be selected, then its use is assured. In either case, the soaring costs of the Atlas will present a problem for a program locked into a battle for scarce resources with the congressionally mandated Space Launch System (SLS), one that it is currently losing. It is difficult to see how, with a base vehicle price that is at a minimum double that offered by SpaceX’s Falcon 9, the selection of Atlas-based entrants cannot help but affect both the number of test flights as well as the cost and timing of the operational flights.

If funding for the Commercial Crew program was sufficient for two providers and was expected to remain on a stable trajectory through development, then the natural course of events, as well as open competition, might render the problem self correcting. SpaceX would have a chance to fly the Falcon/Dragon combination multiple times in the next several years, resolving any potential reliability questions, and the nation could wisely hedge its bets with an Atlas-launched crew vessel as well, effectively insuring the ability to operate the International Space Station at its full crew complement. In the end, much like with its commercial cargo program, NASA could weight the relative assignment of commercial crew contracts on cost effectiveness, assigning more flights to the lower cost provider, and both providers could go on to compete for the type of private business, including ISS spaceflight participants, that NASA policy increasingly envisions developing.

If program funding supports only one system, anything other than the Falcon 9/Dragon combination would leave the US still heavily dependent on Russian technology for the most elemental component of its human spaceflight program.

Unfortunately, this all-too-rational scenario seems unlikely to unfold, as the future for the Commercial Crew program appears very much in doubt. In a widely reported speech at an industry forum following the FY2013 budget request, director of commercial spaceflight development Phil McAlister stated that if the program did not receive something close to the funding requested, another round of debilitating cuts might effectively kill the program by pushing it past the point of relevance. Tellingly, he went on to observe that a single test flight alone would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, a statement which underscores the point that, with a starting price which is already either $100 or 200 million more than the Falcon 9, the Atlas V pricing is going to have an undesirable effect.

Pricing, however, is not the only issue regarding the Atlas V and the Commercial Crew program that bears consideration. The most expensive component of the Atlas V is its Russian RD-180 engine. If program funding supports only one system, anything other than the Falcon 9/Dragon combination would leave the US still heavily dependent on Russian technology for the most elemental component of its human spaceflight program, and obviously undercut the argument for getting away from buying seats on Soyuz. Considering Russia’s troubling slide back towards authoritarianism and a renewed role in actively opposing US interests in the Middle East, continued reliance on the RD-180 leaves the US space program needlessly vulnerable to external manipulation. In a Space News interview seeking to explain price increases for the Atlas V, ULA vice president George Sowers put a signification portion of the blame on the RD-180, claiming that “the Russians… had become really good at letting the market drive their prices up.” Yet, the Russian comptroller general’s office accused Energomash of selling a number of engines below cost in 2008 and 2009.

There is an economic and industrial angle as well. The two-chambered RD-180 is basically one half of the four-chambered RD-171 engine, which is built in the same factory and powers the Zenit launch vehicles. Thus, an extension of ULA’s own arguments for supporting an EELV block buy suggests that continued US procurement is effectively supporting the Russian and Ukranian industrial base at the expense of our own. Although the decision to incorporate the RD-180 into the prior Atlas III launch vehicle made both political and economic sense in the world of the late 1990s, much has changed since then. Furthermore, there can be little doubt that the subsequent decision to keep importing the RD-180 in lieu of initiating US production significantly contributed to the full-fledged retreat from an indigenous hydrocarbon main engine capability, hastened by the retirement of the Delta II and only now being countered by SpaceX. The result was an undeniable effect on the available architectures for consideration for both the Constellation program and the SLS. This is a subject that demands very careful consideration before committing the United States to further, possibly even total, reliance on foreign-sourced critical path components as the sole-source winner for Commercial Crew.

Although the immediate impacts are being felt in planetary science programs, with Commercial Crew soon to follow, rising costs in the EELV program will extend beyond the medium to intermediate class of launch vehicles. Stemming from the fact that a surprising array of aerospace professionals, including some high profile NASA veterans, believe that the congressionally mandated SLS is plainly unaffordable over the long run, and thus will not survive, the rising costs of EELV launches also have direct implications for deep space ambitions, because many of the same people perceive exploration architectures based on EELV heavy lift variants as a plausible alternative. Prior to gazing too hard into the future, however, it would be wise to consider the past, and a program history marked by constantly evolving rationales for both higher prices and increased taxpayer support, even as a revolution in the launch industry was beginning to take shape.

page 2: EELV history >>

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