Lockheed Seeks One More Atlas 5 Commercial Launch in ‘Tight’ 2016

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PARIS — Lockheed Martin is hopeful of landing another commercial customer this year for an Atlas 5 launch that it would try to squeeze into a tight 2016 manifest, a company official said.

Steve Skladanek, president of Denver-based Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services, said that despite the high price of an Atlas 5 relative to other commercially available vehicles, customers remain interested due to the vehicle’s high reliability and schedule assurance.

“Next year’s a little tight” for the Atlas 5 manifest between its government missions and two planned commercial launches, Skladanek said in an interview here at the World Satellite Business Week conference organized by Euroconsult. “But we’ve got customers that have approached us to see if we can fit something else in in 2016 and we’re looking to see if we can’t do exactly that.”

There is more flexibility on the Atlas 5 manifest in 2017, he said.

The Atlas 5, built by United Launch Alliance, is used overwhelmingly for U.S. government missions, but Lockheed Martin, which markets the vehicle commercially, picks off an occasional commercial contract from operators with little tolerance for delay. ULA, which builds and operates the Delta 4 rocket in addition to the Atlas 5, has developed the ability to launch the latter vehicle on one month centers, Skladanek said.

In August, Lockheed Martin announced it had landed a contract to launch the large Jupiter 2 satellite next year for EchoStar Corp. of Englewood, Colorado. Jupiter 2 originally was supposed to launch on a European Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket but it lost its slot when its construction was delayed.

The Ariane 5, operated by Arianespace of Evry, France, is fully booked through 2016 and into 2017. Other launchers, such as SpaceX’s yet-to-debut Falcon Heavy, have been delayed, while Russia’s Proton rocket, marketed by International Launch Services, has suffered reliability problems.

Skladanek did not identify the prospective near term Atlas 5 customer, but for the satellite to be ready to launch next year it likely would have to have been ordered in 2014 or earlier.

Orbital ATK, which is under a commercial-like contract to deliver cargo to the International Space Station and is revamping its own Antares rocket following an October failure, has purchased two Atlas 5s to date to fill the gap and has indicated that it might purchase another for a 2016 launch. However, because the government is the end-customer, space station resupply launches are considered ULA rather than Lockheed Martin missions.

Steve Skladanek, president of Denver-based Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services
Steve Skladanek, president of Denver-based Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services

Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services’ near-term goal is to land one to two Atlas 5 contracts per year, Skladanek said.

Currently the company has three satellites in its backlog: the Morelos 3 satellite built for the government of Mexico, which is slated to launch in October; the WorldView-4 high-resolution optical Earth observation satellite for DigitalGlobe, slated to launch next September; and Jupiter 2.

The U.S. Air Force, ULA’s anchor customer and owner of the ranges from which the Atlas 5 launches, has been willing to accommodate commercial missions, Skladanek said. For example, the service agreed to give up its October launch slot for a GPS satellite on an Atlas 5 to make way for the Morelos 3 mission. The GPS launch is now scheduled for November, he said.

Morelos 3 was part of a three-satellite order by the government of Mexico that also included the Centenario satellite, which was lost in a Proton failure in May.

Lockheed Martin is looking for a secondary payload for the WorldView-4 launch since that low-orbiting satellite does not require the full lift capability of the Atlas 5. However, finding payloads destined for that orbit at the right time is always challenging, Skladanek conceded.

Lockheed Martin was unsuccessful in finding a secondary payload to fly with DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 satellite, which was launched in August 2014 aboard an Atlas 5.

Any secondary payload on the WorldView-4 launch would have to be approved by DigitalGlobe, Skladanek said. Lockheed Martin likely would give DigitalGlobe a discounted price if it does manage to find a “significant” co-passenger, he said.

The Air Force contracted for 36 Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rocket cores from ULA, but the company has ordered the hardware necessary to build an additional 14 Atlas 5 vehicles that are available for NASA and commercial missions, Skladanek said.