Competition on the Way for U.S. Military Launches

Amy Butler at Aviation Week has a very informative story about how new medium-class launch vehicles and commercially available satellite buses will help the U.S. Air Force reduce the cost of its launch operations. The key points:

  • ULA — a monopoly that operates Atlas V and Delta IV — will be facing future competition from SpaceX (Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy), Orbital Sciences Corporation (Antares), Lockheed Martin (Athena III, and ATK (Liberty).
  • The new medium-class launch vehicles and commercially-available satellite buses are leading the Air Force toward building smaller and less expensive satellites. Currently, satellite sizes and costs are driven by a desire to maximize the amount of capability in each spacecraft due to high launch costs.
  • SpaceX hopes to get the Falcon 9 version 1.1 — with its new Merlin 1D engine — certified to launch military payloads by the end of this year. The company must achieve three successful flights of the upgraded rocket with a payload fairing, two of which must be flown consecutively.
  • Orbital is looking to certify its new Antares rocket by 2018 while ATK is eying late 2016 for Liberty. Lockheed Martin has not identified a date for certifying Athena III.
  • The Air Force is making a bulk buy of at least 36 rocket cores from ULA. A request for proposal for 14 additional cores outside of the ULA order is expected in January at the earliest. The contracts would be awarded in FY 2015 for launches during FY 2017.
  • The ULA bulk buy has provided a $7 billion reduction in cost over the old method of buying each launch vehicle singly. The new arrangement also calls for ULA to purchase long-lead parts, which increases risks for the company but provides more predictability and stability in production.

Read the full story.