Pentagon Reprogramming Request Would Boost Competition in Satellite Launching

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Defense wants to reprogram money this year to boost the number of competitively awarded contracts under its primary satellite launching program, but a senior Air Force official expressed reservations about including an aging weather satellite in the pool of candidate payloads.

In a 2014 reprogramming request sent to Congress July 10, the Pentagon asked for $100 million to support an eighth competitive satellite launch under its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. It is unclear where that money would be drawn from.

Since 2006, United Launch Alliance of Denver has been the sole EELV launch provider, but the Air Force is in the midst of certifying Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Falcon 9 rocket to compete in that marketplace. Currently, however, the service has firm plans to put just seven launch missions up for bid in the next couple of years.

A leading candidate for the proposed eighth mission is the last of the Air Force’s Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites, which was built in the 1990s and notionally slated for a 2020 launch aboard a ULA rocket. The House version of the defense authorization bill for 2015 directs the Air Force to initiate a competitive procurement for the DMSP-20 launch.

But Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told reporters July 22 that reconfiguring the satellite, also known as DMSP F-20, to fly on a Falcon 9 rocket would take at least a year and cost tens of millions of dollars. “The future of DMSP F-20 is not quite clear,” he said.

The Air Force and U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are in the midst of a study of the consequences of not launching the satellite, whose twin, DMSP-19, was launched earlier this year. If the Air Force opts to launch DMSP-20 but wait until 2020 as currently planned, it would incur some $425 million in storage costs, according to an Air Force analysis.

Meanwhile, the reprogramming request also asks Congress’ permission to take 2014 funding for development of the ability to launch GPS navigation satellites two at a time aboard ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket and invest it instead in work on a new rocket engine.

The Air Force for the past several years has been working on a dual-launch capability that would be available beginning with the ninth in the GPS 3 series of positioning, navigation and timing satellites. A critical design review, aimed at proving the maturity of the capability, was planned for the fourth quarter of 2014, according to an April report from the Air Force to congressional defense committees dubbed “Space Modernization Initiative Strategy Goals.”

But during the last year or so the Air Force’s interest in the money-saving concept has dampened considerably, in part because the GPS 3 satellites are good candidates to launch on Falcon 9 rockets. Developing the Atlas 5 dual-launch capability would put SpaceX at a considerable disadvantage in any competition to launch the satellites.

Moreover, deteriorating relations between the United States and Russia have raised questions about the long-term availability of the Atlas 5, whose first stage is powered by a Russian-built engine.

Amid threats by Russia to bar use of the RD-180 engine in U.S. military launches, the Air Force has been looking at ways to shuffle its manifest to preserve existing Atlas 5 vehicles for missions that require the rocket’s unique capabilities. In addition, there has been a strong push from Congress for the Air Force to begin work on a liquid-fueled rocket engine to end U.S. dependence on the RD-180.

Accordingly, the reprogramming request seeks $40 million in 2014 to examine technologies applicable to a new main-stage rocket engine. A chunk of that funding, some $13.2 million, would come from the Air Force’s $14 million budget allocation for work on the dual-launch capability.

GPS 3 prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver has estimated that the dual-launch capability could save $100 million for every two satellites launched.

Chip Eschenfelder, a Lockheed Martin spokesman, said in a July 22 email the company “proved that GPS 3 could be dual launched” beginning with the ninth satellite in the series during a 2013 review. “We feel we could deliver that capability earlier if the government decides it wants to pursue it further,” he said.