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SpaceX liftoff
A SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 14. As SpaceX sues the Air Force over an EELV block buy contract awarded to ULA, it continues to work with the Air Force to certify its rocket for future military missions. (credit: SpaceX)

The dog days of summer launch debates

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Over the last several months, two issues have been at the center of debates in the United States about space access. One is about the continued use of the RD-180 engine, manufactured in Russia, on the Atlas V rocket that frequently launches national security payloads. While that reliance dates back to the program’s origins in the 1990s, recent tensions with Russia, including threats by Russian officials to restrict the use of that engine, have sparked a debate in the US on whether to begin work on an RD-180 replacement.

“Well, that’s not acceptable,” Sen. Sessions said of the estimated time to replace the RD-180. “Why don’t we get busy and get this done and not drag it out?”

The other issue is the debate about competition for military launches in the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. In April, SpaceX filed suit against the Air Force, arguing that it unfairly awarded a “block buy” EELV contract to United Launch Alliance (ULA). At the same time, SpaceX is working with the Air Force to certify the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket for EELV launches, although the number of launches available for competition—assuming the block buy contract is upheld—is limited.

The last week offered an update on those two issues, primarily in the form of a joint hearing by two Senate committees on the subject of space access, along with other statements and developments in Washington. Neither issue is near resolution, although there is, perhaps, growing consensus than an RD-180 replacement program should be started (albeit with a wide range of funding levels).

RD-180 status

The reliance on Russia for the RD-180 became an issue earlier this year, when Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis led to sanctions against Russian officials by the US government. That, in turn, led to threats by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to block the use of RD-180 engines for launches of military spacecraft. And, for a time in early May, a federal court filed in injunction blocking the import of those engines until it concluded that sanctions against Rogozin did not apply (see “Replacing the RD-180”, The Space Review, May 12, 2014.)

Since then, there’s been no evidence that access to RD-180 engines has been restricted in any way. “Right now, I don’t think we have an indication that it really is where the [Russian] government comes down on this in the long term,” Gen. William Shelton, head of Air Force Space Command, told reporters in a briefing in late May at the 30th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, referring to Rogozin’s comments. “And there are other indications that ‘business as usual’ is the state of play with Russian industry.”

Shelton and other officials reiterated that “business as usual” remains the case with the RD-180 during a rare joint hearing July 16 of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee and the strategic forces subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “There’s no indication that we’d be cut off today,” said Alan Esetvez, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, one of seven witnesses at the two-hour hearing.

However, the threat of a Russian ban on RD-180 exports remains enough of a concern in the eyes of many to warrant investment in an RD-180 replacement. Shelton, another witness at the Senate hearing, said the loss of the RD-180 would cost the Defense Department at least $1.5 billion and delay launches anywhere from 12 to 48 months as missions are shifted to the Delta IV. “It is dire,” he warned. “There would be serious national security implications.”

“If you look at what has happened to us now in the last few months, it points to a vulnerability,” Shelton said when asked if there was a need for a new engine. “Given that reliance, it’s probably time to look at strategies for the future. I think we can certainly help our liquid rocket engine industrial base by moving into such a program.”

What form that new engine would take remains to be determined. “We haven’t decided what the best way forward is,” said Estevez. “We do want to move forward with some risk reduction activities.” He said during the hearing that replacing the RD-180 with a domestic engine would likely cost one to two billion dollars and take five to eight years.

One senator pushed back against that estimated schedule. “Well, that’s not acceptable,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), ranking member of the strategic forces subcommittee, said when Estevez gave the schedule estimate. “Why don’t we get busy and get this done and not drag it out?”

Other senators at the hearing, though, were not in as big a rush. “This strikes me as a low-risk, high-consequence kind of situation,” said Sen. Angus King (I-ME) of the possibility of Russia cutting off RD-180 exports.

“It’s clear that over-reliance on assets like the RD-180 for national security launches is something that we need to look at very seriously,” Sen. Heinrich said.

“It is also fairly clear that Roscosmos certainly doesn’t want to give up that income stream, and it looks like that, from their standpoint, they clearly want to continue to supply the RD-180,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the space subcommittee. (It’s not clear Roscosmos, the Russian civil space agency, directly collects income from the sale of RD-180 engines by Russian manufacturer NPO Energomash.)

Outside of that hearing, other members of Congress expressed support for developing an RD-180 replacement. “There’s a strong possibility that the Congress will finalize support for a domestically-built alternative later this year,” said Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, in a speech July 17 at the Future Space 2014 meeting in Washington. “I hope it happens sooner, rather than later.”

Later that day, in a luncheon speech at the same conference, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) also supported work on replacing the RD-180. “It’s clear that over-reliance on assets like the RD-180 for national security launches is something that we need to look at very seriously,” he said. “Some argue that it would take years to build a comparable engine here in the United States, and they talk about the cost of building those assets. But I think these arguments only prolong inaction and, frankly, delay a course of action” towards self-reliance.

While many in Congress and at the Pentagon may want to start work on an RD-180 replacement, whether or not the supply of those engines are in jeopardy, there’s less consensus on how much to allocate in fiscal year 2015 to begin that effort. Last month, the House passed a defense appropriations bill that provides $220 million to start work on the program. However, the Senate’s version of the bill, passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, would provide just $25 million for that effort, added to the $43 million originally requested for a more generic liquid rocket engine technology development program.

When the House’s defense bill was up for debate last month, the Obama Administration expressed its opposition to the $220 million included in the bill for an RD-180 replacement. “This approach prematurely commits significant resources and would not reduce our reliance on Russian engines for at least a decade,” the Office of Management and Budget argued in a Statement of Administration Policy. It added that “the Administration is evaluating several cost-effective options including public-private partnerships with multiple awards that will drive innovation, stimulate the industrial base, and reduce costs through competition.”

However, at the Senate hearing, Sen. Sessions said the White House had requested $40 million in a supplemental budget request for 2015 to start work on a replacement for the RD-180.

EELV competition

In April, SpaceX surprised many when it announced that it was filing suit to overturn the Air Force’s EELV block buy contract with United Launch Alliance, arguing that it had been unfairly shut out of the competition even though its Falcon 9 rocket has yet to be certified by the Air Force (see “SpaceX escalates the EELV debate”, The Space Review, April 28, 2014). There has been little progress in the case since SpaceX filed the suit, beyond an injunction filed, and a week later, lifted by the court regarding RD-180 imports.

There has been, though, a war or words among SpaceX, the Air Force, and ULA through their court filings. In June, SpaceX updated its original complaint to argue that ULA and the Air Force failed to provide and certify accurate EELV costs prior to awarding the block buy, citing allegations of inflated prices for the RD-180 engines made earlier in the month by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

At the end of June, the Air Force responded with a motion to dismiss SpaceX’s suit, claiming SpaceX does not have standing to protest the EELV contract. The Air Force said SpaceX should have protested back in 2012, when the Air Force issued the request for proposals (RFP) for the block buy award. Moreover, it argues that SpaceX was not eligible to compete for the contract since its Falcon 9 has yet to be certified.

“Although SpaceX may have ongoing concerns regarding the EELV program that it wishes to explore, SpaceX’s own failure to timely object to the RFP means that it does not have standing to bring those complaints to this Court by challenging what it calls the ‘block buy’ contract,” the Air Force motion stated.

“If we had everything work and there were no disagreements, all the data was provided and everything was perfect, everything could be done by December of this year,” Gen. Shelton said of certifying SpaceX. “Kicking that into the next year is a possibility.”

While the court case continues, the Air Force and SpaceX are still working together to certify the Falcon 9 v1.1. Last week, the Air Force announced that it had certified the second and third Falcon 9 v1.1 launches, in December 2013 and January 2014, as successful. Coupled with the earlier certification of the first Falcon 9 v1.1 launch, SpaceX now has competed three successful Falcon 9 v1.1 launches, a key milestone in the certification process.

“I applaud SpaceX on achieving the three flights. With this significant part of the agreed-to path in certifying the Falcon 9 v1.1 launch system complete, we look forward to working with SpaceX to complete the remaining certification activities and providing SpaceX with the opportunity to compete for EELV missions,” said Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves, commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, in a July 15 statement.

That milestone, though, is only part of the certification process. At the July 16 Senate hearing, Gen. Shelton said the certification process includes 19 different engineering review boards. In a conversation with reporters after the hearing, Shelton added that only three of those reviews have been completed to date.

At the hearing, Estevez said that it was possible that SpaceX could be certified by the end of this year, a timeline that SpaceX officials have previously endorsed. Shelton, though, suggested it might not be completed until early 2015. “If we had everything work and there were no disagreements, all the data was provided and everything was perfect, everything could be done by December of this year,” Shelton said after the hearing. He added that there had been disagreements in the reviews completed to date. “Kicking that into the next year is a possibility.”

Adding to the schedule pressure on certification is a competition for the first in several EELV-class launches that the Air Force plans to compete in the next several years. On July 15, it released an RFP for a mission designated NROL-79 for the National Reconnaissance Office. Proposals are due to the Air Force on August 14.

Although SpaceX’s Falcon 9 v1.1 is not yet certified, it can compete for the launch since the Air Force has certified the three successful flights. However, Shelton noted after the hearing that the rocket has to be certified before the Air Force can award any launch contracts to it. “That’s the one we need to get them certified to compete,” he said. “That’s the pacing item from their perspective.”

“I don’t like this deal,” Sen. McCain said of the block buy EELV contract, complaining that only a handful of launches would be available for competition.

How many other missions like NROL-79 that will be open to competition was a subject of discussion at the Senate hearing, which some complaining that the original estimate of as many as 14 had gone down in half. “Many of the launches that were set aside for competition were GPS launches,” Shelton said, and with the GPS satellite constellation in good health, those launches have been stretched out over time. “It really wasn’t an anti-competitive thing.”

That, though, didn’t appease Sen. McCain, who, near the end of the hearing, criticized the Air Force, and Shelton specifically, for appearing to be anti-competitive. McCain noted a comment Shelton made to reporters at the Space Symposium in May: “Generally, the person you want do business with, you don’t sue them.”

“Do you stand by that statement?” McCain asked. When Shelton said he did, McCain then asked about a ULA suit against the Air Force about recovering costs. “If some company or corporation thinks they are not being fairly treated, you don’t think they should be able to sue? I mean, that’s not our system of government, Gen. Shelton. I don’t really get your statement except that it shows real bias against the ability of any company or corporation in America to do what they think is best for their company or corporation.”

McCain appeared at one point to even liken the EELV block buy contract to the Air Force tanker contract scandal of the early 2000s. “People went to jail. People were fired,” he recalled of that controversy. “I don’t like this deal,” he said of the block buy EELV contract, complaining that only a handful of launches would be available for competition.

That issue, like the dependence of the US on the Russian-built RD-180 engine, is not something that’s likely to be resolved to everyone’s, or anyone’s, satisfaction any time soon.