Space News reports that seven U.S. Senators are pushing to open more U.S. Air Force launches to competition from SpaceX and other providers:
In an April 1 letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the senators said the decision to shrink the number of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle missions eligible for competition to seven from 14 should be “immediately reviewed.”
“We strongly believe this proposal undermines the Air Force’s previous plan to begin to compete launches in 2015 and urge you to take all necessary steps to ensure the Air Force fulfills its commitment to provide meaningful competition opportunities this year for award in fiscal year 2015 and beyond,” the letter said.
The letter was signed by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). Feinstein chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which has legislative jurisdiction over the nation’s spy satellite programs.
ULA currently has a monopoly over the EELV program with its Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. However, costs on those launch vehicles have been rising sharply in recent years.
Further, Senators are concerned about the security implications of continuing to launch vital U.S. military and civilian payloads on the Atlas V, which uses a Russian-produced RD-180 engine in its first stage.
Relations between the United States and Russia have sunk in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which was formerly part of Ukraine.
The Defense Department is now conducting a review of the RD-180 dependence to determine what could be done. One option is to produce the engine in the United States under license. However, an initial estimate indicates that option could cost $1 billion and take five years.
ULA says that it has a two-year stockpile of RD-180 engines. There also has been no breech of the contract with the Russian company that supplies the propulsion system.
Another possibility is to revive a proposal to develop a new American engine in the same class as the RD-180. The idea was proposed several years ago, but no funding was provided.