WASHINGTON — Rebounding from a lost year in 2008, United Launch Alliance (ULA) posted a strong campaign in 2009 that included eight launches between its Atlas 5 and Delta 4 families of rockets. Now the company will be put to the test in 2010 as the U.S. government asks it to launch the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 vehicles a combined 10 times.
ULA also operates the smaller Delta 2 rocket, which is being phased out by the U.S. Air Force and NASA.
Denver-based ULA, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, was created in 2006 to serve as the primary space launch provider for the U.S. Defense Department and civil agencies. The company’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets were developed under the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program to ensure access to space for the government and for commercial customers.
Various technical problems kept both rockets grounded for most of 2008, with the Atlas 5 conducting one government launch and one commercial launch and the Delta 4 not launching at all. Both rockets returned to flight in 2009. With the Dec. 5 launch of an Air Force communications satellite, the EELV rockets have tallied a combined perfect record of 29 successful launches since 2002.
“We never take it for granted,” ULA President Mike Gass said in a Dec. 16 interview. “I know I was just as nervous for each one as any other launch. You’ve got to work hard at mission assurance to have that record. We believe we are continuing to raise the standard, and we’re real proud of the team’s effort.”
ULA plans to conduct seven EELV launches for the military and intelligence community and three launches for NASA this year, the Air Force says. The launches begin Feb. 3 with NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, to be lofted aboard an Atlas 5 rocket out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. ULA will also conduct one Delta 2 launch, of the Italian Cosmo-4 radar satellite, during the year.
The stagnation of 2008 added to a backlog of government satellites that has left almost no room on ULA’s manifest for commercial launches for the next three years, Gass said. The delays also drew the public ire of one of ULA’s primary customers, the U.S National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), builder and operator of the nation’s spy satellites.
“The business of launch and the state of launch is not very good,” NRO Director Bruce Carlson, a retired Air Force general, said in an October 2009 speech. “Many of you out there have packages ready to go. If you kept going to the Hertz [car rental] counter and they never had a car, you’d get frustrated and eventually quit going to Hertz.”
Gass acknowledged the criticism but said delays in spacecraft deliveries also contributed to the logjam of 2008. To avoid a repeat of that scenario, ULA has been laying the groundwork for several new initiatives meant to make the launch enterprise more efficient and able to meet periods of high demand.
“On average there is plenty of capacity in a year, but we need to do a better job of handling those surges,” Gass said.
Last year, the Air Force paid ULA to take on additional manpower to shorten the turnaround times at its two launch sites at Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The span between Atlas 5 launches was reduced from 60 days to 45 days, and the span between Delta 4 launches shortened from 75 days to 60 days. Those shorter intervals will be maintained this year, Gass said.
ULA will also begin this year using a more flexible method for determining which satellite will launch on any given rocket. Until now, specific payloads, rockets and launch slots have been assigned together two years in advance, and a delay in spacecraft delivery could cause a launch window to go unused. This year, certain launch vehicles will not be assigned payloads until six months from the launch date.
Meanwhile, ULA and the government are looking to the future to ensure the EELV program can be sustained through 2030. The company is in the process of certifying the RS-68A main engine that will eventually power all of the Delta 4 rockets. The RS-68A is a more powerful and efficient variant of the RS-68 engine now in use on the Delta 4.
In December, ULA also completed a critical design review of a secondary payload adapter similar to what Arianespace uses to conduct dual-payload launches with its Ariane 5 rocket. The ability to mix and match government and commercial payloads on the same rocket will create more launch opportunities for the entire customer base and ultimately drive down costs to the government, Gass said.