Not everyone on Capitol Hill disapproves of the Air Force launch strategy

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The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee is not a big fan of the Air Force’s plan to transition to a new generation of launch vehicles. He has criticized the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement for restricting competition and creating a duopoly instead of a more open market. The House Appropriations Committee, on the other hand, commended the Air Force’s launch procurement strategy for increasing competition and eliminating U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines. “The national security space launch program is going through a critical transition as it phases out legacy launch systems and considers a variety of new and upgraded rockets to meet the full slate of national security mission requirements,” says the HAC report submitted with its proposed 2020 defense budget.

The Air Force requested $1.2 billion to procure four launches in fiscal year 2020, and $432 million to continue funding next-generation vehicles under the Launch Service Agreement program. The HAC fully funded the request.

Three new vehicles — United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and Northrop Grumman’s OmegA —  will compete in Phase 2 along with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. The HAC did express concern with the “significant level of technical and programmatic risk this transition entails, including risk of a potential gap if any of the new, unproven rockets develop problems or experience setbacks.” The committee “urges the Secretary of the Air Force to proceed expeditiously with its strategy in order to minimize the risk of a gap in assured access to space.”

An industry source said some lawmakers and congressional staffers who were around in the 1990s still remember the Titan 4 failures. “No one wants to go back there,” the source said. “The committee is correct to be concerned, but wants the Air Force to keep moving forward.”

All three rockets now in development are expected to pass key design milestones this year. On Monday ULA announced Vulcan Centaur passed a Critical Design Review. “This is signaling the completion of the design phase and start of formal qualification,” said CEO Tory Bruno.

ULA’s strategy to manage the risk of a new vehicle is to use heritage components, except the engine. When the first Vulcan Centaur rocket flies in 2021, the company said on Monday, a high percentage of the rocket will have flown before on ULA’s Atlas 5, including the fairing, upper stage engines in a dual configuration, avionics, software and solid rocket motors.

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