ULA Developing Three Options for Relieving Launch Logjams

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WASHINGTON — United Launch Alliance (ULA) is studying options for alleviating launch bottlenecks at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., that include building additional Atlas 5 infrastructure at the site to allow for concurrent processing of two vehicles, the company’s top executive said.

This would entail building a second vertical integration facility and mobile launch platform for the Atlas 5, the busier of ULA’s two primary launch vehicles, said Mike Gass, chief executive of the Denver-based company. Other options being reviewed as part of a three-month, ULA-funded study are increasing launch staffing levels and moving some launches scheduled for the East Coast over to ULA’s West Coast launch facility, Gass said.

The idea is to relieve logjams that occur periodically at the Cape, but not necessarily to increase the number of launches per year, Gass said in an April 27 interview. “On an average basis the launch manifest is fine, but on a per customer basis, if you’re a customer and there’s a conflict on the date you want, then it’s crowded,” he said.

ULA builds and launches the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets under the U.S. Air Force-supported Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Other ULA customers include NASA and the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.

ULA’s launch schedule conflicts to date have involved East Coast launches of Atlas 5. While the existing infrastructure at Cape Canaveral supports the required number of Air Force missions, NASA and other customers have had to jockey for slots on a full Atlas 5 manifest that is booked well into 2012. Part of the problem is tardy payloads, which create congestion with on-schedule payloads when they finally arrive at the launch facility.

Adding a second Atlas 5 vertical integration facility and mobile launch platform at
Cape Canaveral is the most expensive of the three alternatives ULA is reviewing, with preliminary estimates ranging from $200 million and $400 million, Gass said. ULA proposes to make that investment, most likely recouping its costs through higher launch prices in the 10 to 15 years following completion of the new infrastructure, he said.

“We’re looking at whether this brings more value to our end customers by reducing schedule conflicts and what kind of cost increase at launch it brings in relationship to their saving in spacecraft delays,” Gass said. “If it’s not a value to our end customers then we won’t do this, but if it is a value we’ll work with them to make sure they understand what it means in future pricing.”

Under the EELV program, ULA provides the capability for eight Air Force launches per year: three Delta 4 and three Atlas 5 rockets from Cape Canaveral and one Delta 4 and one Atlas 5 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., according to an Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center statement provided by spokesman Joe Davidson. The Air Force would not pay for infrastructure upgrades since Cape Canaveral is currently equipped to accommodate the service’s expected launch demand, the statement said.

Gass said other government and nongovernment customers would pay the costs associated with easing the launch schedule, unless at some point the Air Force needs to launch more missions than specified in the EELV agreement. The Atlas 5 is marketed commercially by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver.

“From an Air Force perspective, they don’t necessarily need this,” Gass said. “This is really all the other customers because right now the Air Force is paying for our basic capability, and we’re allowed to sell the additional capability on an available basis. Right now they are not even using all the capacity they have.”

ULA’s infrastructure at Cape Canaveral can support 12 Atlas 5 launches per year, well above the EELV program requirement. Problems have cropped up, however, when missions have slipped, pushing a delayed launch toward another mission’s launch window, Gass said. Current ULA staffing levels generally require at least 60 days for ground processing between launches.

The Air Force has agreed to pay ULA $15 million this year to add staff to shorten the processing cycle; ULA is looking at extending that arrangement beyond 2009 as part of its three-month study. In the future, the Defense Department expects to launch an average of about nine or 10 times per year, the Air Force statement said.

“If these requirements materialize, then the EELV Launch Capability workforce might need to be increased to prevent a backlog,” the statement said.

With an accelerated ground processing schedule, NASA could gain confidence that its Juno mission to Jupiter and Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) could launch within two months of each other in 2011. Currently, three other missions are targeting the same timeframe and NASA is making some changes to the MSL launch plan to accommodate both launches in close time proximity. NASA’s launch flexibility for planetary missions is often constrained by the fact that, in many cases, the planets are in a favorable alignment only once every few years.

NASA announced in March the purchase of four Atlas 5 rockets to launch science missions between 2011 and 2014, and the busy manifest is posing some challenges for the space agency, said Bill Wrobel, NASA’s assistant associate administrator for launch services.

“Next year some of the Air Force missions may move to the right, which means 2011 gets even more tight,” Wrobel said.

ULA also is considering moving some launches scheduled for the Cape Canaveral out west to Vandenberg, where an increasing number of different types of missions can be launched as a result of the Atlas 5’s capabilities, Gass said. Vandenberg’s geography accommodates launches to polar orbits, while Cape Canaveral’s is better for low-inclination orbits that track closely with the equator.

“On the West Coast some of the pads don’t get used for a year or two. Mostly we’ve thought about the West Coast as only capable of supporting polar missions, but with the increased performance of the Atlas and Delta vehicles, we can handle a lot of high-inclination missions out of the West Coast going on a southern trajectory, including missions to the space station and some of the GPS [satellites]. Those are all missions that are possible now because of the increased performance of the vehicle,” Gass said.

Meanwhile, ULA is working with the Air Force on the concept of buying launch vehicles in batches, or blocks, instead of one at a time. This would help stabilize an industrial base that currently stops and starts based on orders that tend to come in one at a time in haphazard fashion, Gass said.

The Air Force has not purchased EELV launches in bulk since its initial 27-launch purchase in 1998, but Gass hopes that will change beginning in 2011 or 2012. The Air Force is working with Congress and the Defense Department to determine if buying rockets in bulk would require changes to acquisition policies, he said.

“Right now the U.S. government is buying launches inefficiently and frankly incentivizing us to be relatively inefficient. The block buy gives the government the benefit of using their buying power to get the economies of scale. The other benefit is the space industrial base is struggling, and when you have programs like EELV that have a five- to 10-year outlook in front of them, we should use the program more strategically to stabilize the industrial base,” Gass said.

ULA is encouraging the Air Force to leave some launches out of the block buy to give other companies a chance to break into the EELV business, Gass said. The Air Force issued a draft EELV New Entrant Evaluation Plan in February, outlining the requirements for new companies to participate in the EELV program.

“We encourage the Air Force not to buy all the missions from ULA, but to leave some behind for the new entrants,” Gass said. “As they prove themselves, they can get more and more. But in the meantime, you don’t have to not do anything.”