National security launch in transition as Space Force waits for Vulcan

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It came as no surprise that the U.S. Air Force a year ago decided to retain United Launch Alliance and SpaceX as its two primary providers of launch services.

The selection of two companies for the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 contract was a pivotal moment for the military’s launch program that had long been dependent on a single provider, ULA.

The decision also was significant because it marked the beginning of the end of the U.S. military’s reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine. Congress passed a law in 2016 that prohibits the U.S. military after 2022 from procuring launch services on vehicles that use the RD-180 engine.

That requirement did not affect DoD’s procurement of launch services from SpaceX, whose rockets Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy use domestically produced engines. But it had a huge impact on ULA as the RD-180 is the main engine of its workhorse rocket, the Atlas 5.

To compete for the Phase 2 national security launch contract, ULA developed a two-stage heavy-lift expendable rocket, Vulcan Centaur. Vulcan’s booster propulsion will be provided by a pair of BE-4 engines manufactured in the United States by Blue Origin.

ULA’s engine choice dates back to 2014 when it inked a deal with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to jointly fund the development of a liquid rocket engine. ULA in 2015 announced it would build Vulcan as its next-generation rocket and in 2018 awarded Blue Origin a contract to supply BE-4 engines.

When the Air Force in August 2020 selected ULA as one of its Phase 2 providers, Vulcan was projected to start flying in 2021. But the vehicle’s first flight has slipped to 2022 due to engine delays and customer payloads taking longer to complete than previously estimated.

BE-4 engine hardware at Blue Origin. Credit: Blue Origin

Vulcan’s main engine is years behind schedule. Blue Origin proclaimed in 2015 that the BE-4 would be ready by 2017 but the company has yet to deliver flight-ready engines needed for Vulcan’s inaugural flight.

Vulcan also needs to complete two successful orbital missions before it can be certified by the U.S. Space Force to fly national security payloads.

ULA’s game plan is to complete Vulcan’s first two commercial launches in 2022 so the vehicle is cleared to fly its first national security mission in 2023. To make this work, not only does ULA need the BE-4 engines but also its customer payloads which are also running behind. One is a robotic lunar lander being developed by Astrobotic. The other is Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser orbital spaceplane that has a NASA contract to fly cargo missions to the International Space Station.

On the one-year anniversary of the Pentagon’s NSSL Phase 2 selections, ULA expects delivery of BE-4 engines by the end of 2021. Astrobotic and Sierra Space are still targeting 2022 launches.

ATLAS 5 TO FLY ULA’S FIRST PHASE 2 MISSION

Vulcan’s schedule setbacks already have caused ripple effects in the Phase 2 contract. The first mission awarded to ULA that would have been flown by Vulcan — USSF-51, projected to launch in early 2022 — will fly on Atlas 5.

ULA CEO Tory Bruno said the substitution is allowed under the terms of the Phase 2 contract as long as the price does not go up. “An Atlas costs more than a Vulcan but we offered it at the same price,” he said in a recent interview.

Bruno nevertheless remains confident that ULA’s second Phase 2 mission, USSF-106, will fly on Vulcan in 2023.

“Development is never over until it’s over,” he said. The BE-4 engine so far has performed well in tests and the manufacturing of Vulcan’s first two engines is underway, Bruno said. He said Blue Origin in the coming months will start qualification tests and complete the production of ULA’s two flight engines by year’s end.

Assuming no major technical issues emerge, he said, Vulcan will be ready to fly its first two missions in 2022 so it can be certified in time to launch USSF106 in 2023.

Once Vulcan is ready to fly, ULA has to contend with the possibility that its customers Astrobotic and Sierra Space might not be, Bruno said. If these payloads experience further delays, ULA would seek other customers so Vulcan can get certified, he said. “There would be a point in time where Vulcan would fly with something else. But we don’t expect that to be the case.”

Switching more NSSL missions to Atlas 5 would be an option of last resort.

ULA CEO Tory Bruno and Jeff Bezos announcing BE-4 partnership in September 2014. Credit: SpaceNews

“That would be way down the list of backup plans,” Bruno said. ULA has an undisclosed number of RD-180 engines in storage, which the company estimates will be enough to continue to fly Atlas 5 until Vulcan can take over. The congressional ban only applies to Defense Department missions so ULA could continue to offer Atlas 5 for civil and commercial launches.

“We have purchased our last RD-180s,” said Bruno “I’m not even planning to buy any more, and I don’t think I’ll have to.”

ULA meanwhile is working with Aerojet Rocketdyne on a modification to the RL10 engine for Vulcan’s upper stage. The engine has a new 33-inch nozzle extension that was observed vibrating when it flew a military satellite on an Atlas 5 mission in May.

Concerns about the vibrations led ULA to sideline the enhanced RL10 while it studied the issue. Bruno said Aerojet will modify the engine “so it won’t exhibit that behavior in the future. So yes it will definitely be available for Vulcan missions.”

Space industry analyst Andrew Penn, of the consulting firm Avascent, said the challenges experienced thus far with Vulcan are not unusual with a new launch vehicle.

“None of these appear to be systemic issues that they won’t be able to overcome,” he said. “I’m sure there is mutual disappointment with the schedule” for the BE-4 engine but they will push forward.

Under a worst-case scenario — if Vulcan delays persist — the Defense Department could either swap Vulcan and Falcon 9 missions, or request a waiver from Congress to continue using the RD-180-powered Atlas 5, said Penn.

He noted that one of the staunchest advocates of the RD-180 ban was the late senator John McCain, so there may be less resistance if this discussion comes up again.

SPACE FORCE OPTIMISTIC ABOUT PHASE 2

Despite early hiccups with Vulcan, the head of the U.S. Space Force launch program, Col. Robert Bongiovi, expressed confidence in the Space Force’s launch providers and the Phase 2 procurement strategy.

“The United States space launch industry is the envy of the world, and we’re proud to continue our industry partnerships and investments,” he said at a Washington Space Business Roundtable event in May.

“There’s a lot ahead of us on Phase 2 in transitioning to new vehicles,” Bongiovi said. “The hard part of Phase 2 is just beginning.”

DoD is investing nearly $1 billion in the development of Vulcan. Bongiovi said ULA’s planned transition from its two legacy vehicles, Atlas 5 and Delta 4 Heavy, to theVulcan Centaur is expected to reduce the cost of launch services.

With regard to SpaceX, Bongiovi praised the Space Force’s recent adoption of reused Falcon 9 boosters for national security missions. “This allows us an increased launch tempo,” he said.

Another priority is completing the integration of SpaceX’s three-core Falcon Heavy into the national security fleet. The vehicle this fall is scheduled to fly its first NSSL mission, USSF 44, which is almost a year behind schedule. Falcon Heavy flew a military rideshare mission in 2019 that deployed experimental satellites, but will be performing more challenging missions under the Phase 2 contract. For USSF 44, Falcon Heavy must deploy two payloads directly into geosynchronous orbit.

The Space Force has so far awarded seven Phase 2 missions: four to ULA and three to SpaceX. ULA won 60 percent and SpaceX 40 percent of the estimated 34 or so missions projected to be flown between 2022 and 2027.

LOOKING AHEAD TO PHASE 3

As the Space Force works through Phase 2 growing pains, officials are meeting with industry executives this month in Los Angeles to start discussions on Phase 3 of the NSSL program.

An industry day was scheduled for Aug. 17 to discuss “innovative acquisition strategies” for national security space launch and “facilitate the development of the Phase 3 Launch Service Procurement acquisition strategy for awards starting in fiscal year 2025,” said the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC).

Bongiovi said lessons learned during Phase 2 will influence the Space Force’s future strategy to procure launch services.

“There is a ways to go in Phase 2 before the program provides all the information we need before we develop our next strategy to partner with industry,” he said. “We have to see how Phase 2 performs before we determine it’s the right model.”

A potential twist in Phase 3 is that the Space Force might consider buying not only traditional launch services from Earth to orbit but also in-space transportation services, according to a request for information issued by SMC in November.

Bongiovi said the Space Force plans to spend some time conducting market research before it makes any decisions about Phase 3.

“The SMC launch enterprise is considering a number of different options for the acquisition strategy for procuring Phase 3 launch services,” he said.

“There have been no decisions, including the number of providers,” Bongiovi added. “The launch enterprise intends to leverage U.S. launch industry innovation and competition to provide the launch capability needed for national security launches starting in 2027.”

With regard to in-space transportation, “We are beginning to explore the space access, mobility and logistics capabilities the U.S. Space Force may need in the future,” Bongiovi said. “We are tracking U.S. industry advances in these areas.”

Another looming question is whether new players in the launch market will be capable of challenging ULA and SpaceX for national security contracts.

Of the competitors that didn’t make the cut in Phase 2 — Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin — only Blue Origin is expected to compete again with its New Glenn rocket. Northrop Grumman terminated its OmegA rocket development program after losing out in Phase 2.

A spokeswoman for Blue Origin declined to comment for this article about its plans to compete for a Phase 3 contract.

Northrop Grumman’s director of launch and missile defense Jo Cangianelli said the company will attend the Space Force industry day to better understand the Phase 3 strategy before it decides whether to invest in another launch vehicle for NSSL.

There are also two well-funded emerging players in the small launch market — Rocket Lab and Relativity Space — that earlier this year revealed they are developing medium rockets aimed at the commercial market but also perhaps with Phase 3 of NSSL in mind.

Rocket Lab announced plans to build the Neutron launch vehicle with a reusable first stage that would compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

Morgan Bailey, a spokeswoman for Rocket Lab, said Neutron will be “ideal for launching national security payloads, including many of those payloads competed for launch in the National Security Space Launch program.”

Relativity Space, meanwhile, unveiled plans for Terran R, a fully reusable, 3D-printed launch vehicle for orbital and interplanetary missions. A company spokesman declined to comment about the company’s future rocket or whether it would compete in NSSL Phase 3.

Penn, the industry analyst, said the prospect of additional players coming into the market would give the Space Force enormous flexibility to decide how it wants to procure launch services after ULA’s and SpaceX’s contracts are up for recompete in 2024.

“There will be more vehicles,” he said. “So why commit to a strategy of just two providers? You could have an open competition with no cap on the number of awards.”

Penn said the Space Force should consider “all paths to space” not just for conventional launch vehicles but also so-called space tugs that provide “last-mile” delivery services after a satellite is released from a rocket.

Several companies, including Momentus, Exolaunch and Spaceflight, are working on orbital transfer vehicles. These are propulsive spacecraft designed to ferry satellites to their intended destinations in space after separation from a launch vehicle. If the economics work — and schedules align — these vehicles would allow the Space Force to utilize excess capacity in large rockets instead of procuring dedicated small launches, Penn said.

Philip Bracken, vice president of engineering at Spaceflight, said the company developed an orbital transfer vehicle called Sherpa “with an eye not just on commercial industry but also on U.S. government needs.” He said the U.S. military is “actively seeking and looking for architectures that can deliver smaller satellites to different orbits and do different persistent missions.”

Bracken said companies in the commercial space transportation industry view the Space Force as a key customer and would welcome government investment in technologies that would help commercial systems meet military-unique needs.

NEW COMMAND FOR ACQUISITIONS

Discussions about the next phase of the national security launch program are starting amid broader changes taking place in the military space acquisition business.

The Space Force is establishing a new Space Systems Command to replace the historic Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. Officials said the change is not just a renaming but an attempt to build a different culture and adopt more commercial-like ways of doing business.

The first commander of Space Systems Command is Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, a former deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office, a defense and intelligence agency responsible for building and operating U.S. spy satellites.

“This is something to watch: a culture change as a former NRO official takes over the former SMC,” noted Penn.

The military procurement red tape won’t go away overnight, he said, “but I do expect there will be a continued emphasis on getting things done faster.”

NSSL Phase 3 gives the Space Force a clean sheet of paper to begin drawing up a new acquisition game plan for launch and other capabilities, Penn added. “At the very least, I would expect there to be strong consideration of new alternatives before going down a similar path.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.