After technical troubles and late arriving payloads kept the U.S. Air Force’s Atlas 5 and4 rockets grounded for most of 2008, the vehicles are expected to tally more launches between them this year than in any of the past seven. Developed under the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program as the primary means of getting U.S. national security payloads into orbit, the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 have logged a combined 26 missions to date without failure.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that neither rocket is being manufactured or launched at rates considered optimal for economy and reliability, a legacy of a late 1990s decision to fund development of both vehicles under the erroneous assumption that robust commercial demand would keep two production lines humming. As a result, the Air Force has to shell out additional funds just keep the EELV program and its prime contractor, Denver-based( ), whole.
On top of that, at least one other company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (), is pushing to break the virtual monopoly held by ULA, whose corporate parents are Boeing and Lockheed Martin, in the business of launching operational U.S. military payloads. If SpaceX succeeds, the Air Force will have another hungry mouth to feed without any additional resources.
These are among the challenges faced by Air Force Col. Gary Henry, who oversees the EELV program and manages the service’s launch ranges in California and Florida. Another is finding a way to get more commercial payloads on the EELV manifest, something everyone agrees would benefit the overall program.
While the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 currently cost too much to have a significant presence in the commercial market, satellite operators cite launch range availability as another issue. Henry says the Air Force’s plan to buy EELV rockets in bulk rather than one at a time — with payloads assigned to a specific rocket and launch slot on a first-come, first-served basis — will help reduce individual launch costs while bringing more scheduling flexibility to the ranges.
Henry spoke recently with Space News staff writer Turner Brinton.
What is your biggest concern related to maintaining a successful space launch program?
One of the things that concerns me on a daily basis is my sense of complacency within the space community with respect to the EELV program and some of its heritage rockets. I really see that complacency manifest itself in an assumption that these systems are fully mature and will always provide reliable access to space. The number of Atlas 5 launches is measured in the dozens, Delta 4 even fewer, so we still have a fairly immature system. So it’s the things that we do in the government domain and with industry that get us the mission reliability that we have had with this program. And I will just tell you mission assurance isn’t free. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of diligence to deliver it.
For us, it’s a constant struggle to maximize reliability of these systems and to minimize costs, two factors that almost daily find themselves in the opposite corners of the ring. If you go on the underlying assumption that reliability is a given, then I think folks are predisposed to cut costs in ways that might be orthogonal to that objective.
What kinds of developments are needed to sustain EELV for the next decade and beyond?
When you look at what’s driving some of the costs in the future, a lot of it can be linked to propulsion. The biggest investment that could make EELV more efficient and effective is an upper stage that is common to Atlas and Delta. That could really create some efficiencies and drive down the cost of our systems.
Another area we are starting to think about is rocket reusability. I think we can effectively fund and demonstrate a reusable rocket to carry a payload of about 2,250 kilograms to low Earth orbit. That would be a tremendous asset to service the smaller-lift requirement and also create an onramp for the next thing beyond EELV. They’re still promulgating that plan with the hope that we will be able to get a program here shortly.
What will potential new launch providers have to demonstrate to be considered along with EELV for lofting operational payloads?
They’re going to have to demonstrate significant financial resources, organizational and functional expertise, and a production and launch operations capability that we think is sustainable and that makes sense to us. So there’s a technical component and a business component, and we’ll be looking at all of that. For the government, if we bring a new entrant on board, we will make a significant investment of taxpayer dollars to be comfortable with these new systems launching our payloads. What brings best value to the government has to be part of this conversation, instead of just opening the flood gates and saying anyone with a rocket gets to show up and fly. That’s the balance we have to strike over the years to come.
What are the difficulties for the Air Force in taking on any new launch services providers?
You have to remember that the current throughput of boosters that we have really in some cases isn’t enough to keep the current factories lit. I have significant industrial base issues that have to be balanced. So if we were to allow a new entrant to come in, what we are effectively doing is taking an already-limited throughput that is already smaller than I would like to maintain the industrial base and diluting it even more. So that’s the challenge we have. We want to encourage new entrants to have opportunities to play, because it’s in the government’s best interest to create onramps for them, but on the flip side, I have to make sure I don’t break the existing program in the same breath. Because in the end if factories go dark for a year or two, not only does it cost us more to turn them back on, it also has big mission assurance and reliability impacts as well.
Commercial satellite operators have complained that the Air Force does not do enough to open up launch slots when it becomes evident that a government satellite will not be delivered in time for its scheduled launch. Your response?
That is probably a perception held by some, and quite frankly if it’s a perception held by some, then others will consider it a reality. If you look at EELV’s ability to support scheduled launch dates for commercial customers, we work very hard to preserve and protect those dates. Typically the only slips they experience are the ones that we all experience due to fleet-wide issues. If we look historically at commercial launches, I think you’ll find the U.S. government really bends over backwards to support the commercial side. That said, what you’re really poking at is the way we do manifest management today, and how we might change that in the future to make it more flexible. Quite frankly, I think we need to make the manifest more predictable and repeatable as well.
The Air Force conducted its final Delta 2 mission in August with the launch of a GPS satellite. What work remains for the Air Force involving that rocket?
What an incredible legacy the Delta 2 had in supporting all of our GPS missions. While the GPS 2RM-21 satellite was the last official Air Force mission that will fly on a Delta 2, the rocket is still being leveraged by others, particularly NASA. So now there is a memorandum of agreement being coordinated at the highest levels of the Air Force and NASA that will lay out how we will shift responsibility for the resources, launch pads and ground support equipment over to NASA so they can continue leveraging the Delta 2 for a few more years. Those transitions are in play.
The Air Force has been directed to create more opportunities to fly small satellites on its EELV rockets by using the EELV Secondary Payload Adapter ring. What are the challenges there?
We have been funded to create an opportunity about every other year to get the adapter integrated into our missions, and we are working to do that.
One of the complexities associated with that is finding rockets that will have excess weight capacity. That rocket will be going to a certain orbit for its primary mission, so that is going to determine what kinds of auxiliary payloads can fly on it. Then you’ve got to line up all those payloads, and you’ve got to create sufficient stand time so they can be integrated with the adapter ring. That gestation period typically takes a couple years. So all I would ask of my rideshare brethren out there is to give us a little bit of time to get the adapter ring fully integrated and into a battle rhythm where we can create predictable opportunities for them to fly, because that is our intent.