WASHINGTON — United Launch Alliance has multiple options to get around a congressionally imposed ban on the Russian-built main engine on its workhorse Atlas 5 rocket that the company says will prevent it from bidding in a competition to launch a GPS satellite, a senior U.S. Air Force official said.
Claire Leon, director of the launch enterprise directorate at Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, said ULA could reallocate RD-180 engines ordered from the Russian manufacturer that are now intended for nonmilitary missions; it could say it needs a national security waiver from the ban from the defense secretary; or it could await pending congressional relief from the ban.
“There are several avenues that ULA could take,” Leon told reporters in an Oct. 2 conference call.
The Air Force on Sept. 30 released its long-awaited request for proposals to launch a GPS 3 satellite in 2018 in what would be its first competitively awarded launch of an operational U.S. military spacecraft in more than a decade. Proposals are due Nov. 16 in the competition that presumably pits incumbent ULA against newcomer SpaceX, with a contract to be awarded some four months thereafter.
However, in remarks reported by Reuters and confirmed by ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye, ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno told reporters in Florida Oct. 2 that the company cannot bid for the GPS 3 mission absent some relief from the RD-180 ban imposed in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015. Five engines, part of a much larger engine order with the manufacturer, are exempt from the ban, but ULA says these have now been allocated to civil and commercial missions.
The pending NDAA for Fiscal Year 2016 would make four additional engines available, but Bruno said via twitter Oct. 2 that the 2015 law remains in force and prevents ULA from bidding.
The White House has threatened to veto the latest bill, which has been agreed to by House and Senate negotiators, but Leon said it should become law before the GPS 3 launch bids are due.
Leon said ULA might have the option to reallocate engines already spoken for by other, nonmilitary customers, but the company denies this.
SpaceX, meanwhile, will be bidding with an upgraded variant of the Falcon 9 rocket that the Air Force in May certified to carry national security payloads. Leon said the Air Force continues to work with SpaceX to add the upgraded Falcon 9 to the list of certified vehicles.
SpaceX must fulfill a specific set of criteria to verify the design changes to the upgraded rocket, which then would have to make at least three successful flights before it could be used on an Air Force mission, she said.