NASA Is Considering the Future of Delta 2 Rockets

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  Space News Business

NASA Is Considering the Future of Delta 2 Rockets

By BRIAN BERGER
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 07 June 2007
04:05 pm ET





WASHINGTON


— NASA expects to complete by July an internal study that will help the U.S. space agency decide what role, if any, Delta 2 rockets have in its launch plans beyond 2010.



The companies that make and market the Delta 2 anticipate a decision from NASA by year’s end.



Delta 2 rockets are built in Decatur, Ala., by United Launch Alliance, the Denver-based joint venture Boeing and Lockheed Martin formed last year to merge




their respective launch manufacturing and launch services operations.



Huntington Beach, Calif.-based Boeing Launch Systems markets the Delta 2 to commercial customers.

Bill Wrobel, NASA assistant associate administrator for launch services, said in a May 18 interview that “We are looking for the best value for the taxpayer. Depending on what that comes out to be, we may use Deltas or we may not.”

Wrobel
would not say what NASA pays for Delta 2 launches, although a close reading of NASA documents suggest that one of the rocket




s costs the agency $50 million to $65 million by the time it leaves the launch pad.



“That’s one of those I don’t think I can talk about,” he said. “It’s just been one of those things that Boeing prefers us not to discuss.”

NASA has no such restrictions on disclosing what it pays, for example, for Atlas 5 launches. Last year, the agency issued a press release announcing it had awarded Littleton, Colo.-based Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services a contract worth $132.6 for a late 2008 launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

NASA spokesman John Yembrick, in follow-up e-mails, said NASA’s practice of not disclosing Delta 2 prices dates back to 1999 when McDonnell Douglass successfully argued before a federal court that releasing unit prices would cause the company competitive harm.



Yembrick said that when a Freedom of Information Act request was filed with NASA to obtain the launch services contract the agency awarded to Boeing in 2000, Boeing argued that the McDonnell Douglass ruling still applied and that price data should be treated as confidential financial information. After discussing the matter with the U.S. Justice Department, Yembrick said, NASA accepted Boeing’s position.

“Boeing requested that we do not disclose item/unit prices whereas other providers have not,” Yembrick said.

Wrobel
said NASA has nine Delta 2 launches manifested through 2009. In addition, NASA anticipates launching four to six payloads between 2010 and 2012 that would be good fits for Delta 2, but NASA has yet to place orders for those launches, the first of which would be a Discovery-class payload slated for 2011.

Boeing’s current NASA Launch Services contract, an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity deal awarded in 2000, expires in 2010, Wroebel said.

Whether NASA seeks to renew that deal depends in large part on the outcome of an internal study that is being conducted at the request of NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate. NASA’s Science Mission Directorate – historically the biggest user of Delta 2 rockets – is eagerly awaiting the results.

“Clearly the science folks are interested in it because it affects




them, as well,” Wrobell said.

At a House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee hearing in late April, several prominent scientists expressed hope that NASA will decide




sooner rather than later how much longer it intends to use Delta 2.



“It has to be a robust decision,” said Lennard Fisk, a former NASA associate administrator who chairs the Space Studies Board. “It can’t be simply ‘keep the Delta 2 alive’ because that would probably be too expensive.”





However, Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics




at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said shifting NASA launch traffic to the Atlas 5 or Delta 4 is a less than ideal solution since those more powerful rockets not only cost more, but would create the opportunity – and therefore the temptation – for NASA to build bigger science satellites than necessary. Delta 2, he said, offers the right combination of capabilities and cost for many NASA science missions. “I think we would be well advised to try to restore that capability or make sure we have something comparable to the Delta 2 to enable these missions,” Baker said.

Wrobel
said the internal study is taking a close look at the current Delta 2 inventory and analyzing numerous alternatives to the reliable workhorse. Those alternatives include:




co-manifesting mid-sized payloads on the Atlas and Delta rockets develop




ed for the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles program and qualifying new vehicles




expected to come on the market,




such as Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon 9 rocket, to handle the agency’s high-priority payloads.



Traditionally, NASA has required a rocket to have demonstrated 14 consecutive successful launches before being entrusted with one of NASA’s higher-dollar-value payloads. But Wrobel pointed out that NASA has bought rockets in the past with much shorter track records by taking into account the demonstrated reliability of the rocket’s direct predecessor. Case in point: the Atlas 5.

Wrobel
said the study would make recommendations about how NASA might make it easier to qualify a new launcher without cutting corners on reliability. “We will have a pretty good idea of what we think we need to do going forward if there is a new supplier coming online,” he said.

United Launch Alliance spokesman Mike Rein said the company is committed to keeping the Delta 2 in production through 2009 when the last Delta 2 for which the company has a firm NASA order is set to fly.

What happens beyond that depends largely on NASA.

“When NASA talks about launching through 2012, it’s kind of [on] an if-needed basis. Good business practices say that you only want to produce parts and boosters that actually are needed at some point, so we have to resolve that issue,” Rein said.

According to Rein, Boeing and United Launch Alliance do not expect Delta 2’s future to remain an open question much longer.

“We know the decision will come this year,” he said.

As for what kind of proposal United Launch Alliance is making to NASA about how best to meet the agency’s medium-lift needs, Rein would not say.





“We are working with them every day to come up with the most cost-effective option that encompasses reliability, familiarity and obviously cost,” Rein said. “But it’s premature to discuss the specifics because they are still being discussed between ULA and NASA.”





Delta was NASA’s primary launch vehicle from 1960 until the early 1980s when it was displaced by the space shuttle. Following the 1986 Challenger accident, Delta re-emerged. The U.S. Air Force conducted its first Delta 2 launch in 1989. NASA followed suit the following year, using the Delta 2 for the first time to launch Rosat, U.S.-German-British science satellite designed to make an all-sky survey of X-ray sources.

Delta 2 has conducted more than 130 launches to date, a significant share of which have been for NASA.

The rocket is capable of launching 900 kilograms to 2,170 kilograms to geostationary transfer orbit and 2.7 metric tons to 6.1 metric tons to low Earth orbit, according to Boeing’s




Web site.

The U.S. Air Force is due to conduct its last Delta 2 launch in September 2008, Tonya Recasner, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles-based Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, wrote in a May 31 e-mail. The payload is a GPS 2RM satellite.







Delta 2 Launch Manifest







NASA has nine Delta 2 launches under contract through 2009 under an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract the U.S. space agency awarded to Boeing in 2000. In addition, NASA is procuring two Delta 2 launches on behalf of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

6/30/2007

Dawn

8/3/2007

Phoenix

11/8/2007

Space Tracking and Surveillance System Block 2010

Risk Reduction Mission

11/25/2007

Space Tracking and Surveillance System Block 2006

12/14/2007

Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope, or GLAST

6/15/2008

Ocean Surface Topography Mission

11/1/2008

Kepler

2/2/2009

NOAA-N

4/30/2009

National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) Preparatory Mission

7/14/2009

Aquarius

11/1/2009

Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE