COLORADO SPRINGS — United Launch Alliance (ULA), which manages the two launch vehicles used to loft U.S. national security payloads, is already starting contingency planning in the event that its Atlas V rocket is grounded following Russia’s decision to cut off deliveries of the RD-180 first stage amid political tensions over the crisis in Ukraine.
This work includes a look at the cost and complexity of "dual manifesting," or conducting integration work to mate payloads slated for Atlas V onto the Delta IV, the second of the two launchers managed by the ULA monopoly, according to industry sources. Company officials also are looking at a strategy to garner political support for either producing the Russian RD-180 in the U.S. (they already have technical plans and a license) or starting a clean-sheet engine program for the Atlas V.
Russia’s decision to halt RD-180 deliveries was in response to sanctions against individuals close to the Kremlin following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and bellicose posture toward Ukraine.
Also threatening the Atlas V’s future is the lawsuit filed April 28 by(SpaceX), which claims the Air Force’s recent 36-core contract with ULA was anticompetitive.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 v1.1 is poised to become certified to compete with ULA in March 2015, says Lt. Gen. C.R. Davis, military deputy to the Air Force procurement chief. The 36-core deal covers 5 years of work, however, and SpaceX argues it could be ready to compete for up to half of those launches depending on their timing.
Elon Musk, the outspoken founder of SpaceX, told Congress this year he’d like for the Falcon 9 v1.1 to take over the role of the Atlas V, allowing for it to be retired and U.S. reliance on Russian propulsion for national security launch missions to come to an end.
Sixteen RD-180s are in the U.S. in accordance with a policy crafted early in the(EELV) program that allowed for the Russian sourcing. However, a thorny issue facing ULA is that the 36-core deal with the Air Force was for 20 Delta IVs and 16 Atlas Vs. Though 16 RD-180s are in the U.S., some of them are manifested for Atlas V missions that predate the 36-core deal, leaving too few left over to fulfill the block buy obligations without new engines from Russia, or an alternate propulsion option. Should the deal include all 14 options – totaling a buy of 50 cores – it includes an estimated 30 for Atlas V and 20 for Delta IV, the sources say.
The Atlas V typically is a cheaper launch option than a Delta IV, especially for satellites such as the Air Force Advanced Extremely High Frequency () and Navy (MUOS) communications satellites that would likely have to be shifted to a Delta IV Heavy, the most expensive option available, as its back-up, industry sources say. MUOS and AEHF fly on the Atlas V 551 configuration, the largest for the Atlas V.
’s AEHF, MUOS and Space-Based Infrared System early missile warning satellites have not been dual manifested, or mated with the Delta IV; doing so requires detailed engineering work. There is some concern that the acoustic environment and acceleration profile in the Delta IV nosecone could be too violent for MUOS and AEHF, and work remains to study this, the industry sources say. Sources did not provide a cost estimate for dual-manifesting work.
ULA officials say they already are examining whether they can ramp up orders for long-lead supplies for a larger number of Delta IVs in the event more are put on the manifest. ULA’s launch team is trained to support both vehicles, so they could be used for the increased Delta IV volume.
The drawback, however, would be the financial effects on Atlas V suppliers (outside of NPO Energomash) who would have contracts either canceled or unrealized. These sources say that maintaining the integrity of the 36-core deal is so critical for ULA that the company could be willing to carry the cost of these cancellations and ramping up Delta IV.
Already,’s GPS IIF and Wideband Global Satcom have been dual-manifested; Lockheed Martin’s is supposed to be dual-manifested though it is early in that program’s work.
It is unclear whether reassigning payloads from Atlas V to Delta IV would require reopening the block buy for renegotiation, possibly exposing the Air Force to higher costs.