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An Uphill Battle for Department of Defense Launch Competition

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

October 17, 2011

An Uphill Battle for Department of Defense Launch Competition

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

The U.S. Air Force, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and NASA have announced a strategy for certifying commercial launch vehicles for heavier lift missions, but it's still going to be an uphill battle for SpaceX (News - Alert) and other companies to loosen the United Launch Alliance (ULA) monopoly of Atlas V and Delta IV rockets.

Announced on October 14, the Air Force, NRO, and NASA are working together to further competition and expand the number of companies that are qualified to launch missions requiring an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) -- basically an Atlas V or Delta IV rocket. ULA, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin (News - Alert) and Boeing, has been the sole supplier for EELV-sized launchers since 2006, giving it an effective monopoly for most Department of Defense satellite launches and a lot of larger NASA satellites and probes as well.

Needless to say, prices on Atlas V and Delta IV launches have climbed steadily upward over the past six years, leaving the government to seek ways to inject competition into its launch buys. The draft new policy divides up satellite payloads into four categories, ranging from Class A (No risk tolerance accepted) to Class D (No big deal if we lose it/cheap satellite/short mission lifetime/can refly or has alternatives).

After a satellite payload has been classed, you move to a second matrix classifying launch vehicles into three categories from Category 1 to Category 3, along with different ways to certify launch vehicles within each category. Category 1 is for "high risk" launch vehicle availability so only Class D payloads would be put on a Category 1 launch vehicle while everything up to a Class A payload could go onto a Category 3 "Low risk" launch vehicle.

SpaceX has been very rah-ray about the new policy announcement, but the Department of Defense is floating a five year bulk buy of ULA Atlas and Delta rockets. The U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) is scheduled to release its public analysis of the buy, according to Florida Today, but SpaceX has turned up its lobbying heat in recent weeks to protest the decision. The buy would start in 2013 and buy eight ULA products over five years, effectively locking SpaceX out of DoD EELV business for almost a decade. Locking into a five year deal would limit price increases on the already-expensive rockets to only 15 percent. It would also give ULA 80 percent of the expected launches in that time frame.

But SpaceX also faces a more pragmatic second problem -- its products currently don't have the launch track record ULA has established.  Since 2006, the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets have been successfully launched 29 times.   SpaceX's Falcon 9 has all of two flights under its belt -- both in 2010 -- and the company's Falcon Heavy, designed to compete with in the EELV category -- won't have its first demo flight until early 2013.

With the new launch strategy defining low risk vehicles being able to launch Class A payloads, it isn't clear where Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy fall in the launch risk matrix, but fewer actual flights will require much more paperwork until the SpaceX rockets have built up a more substantial track record.

Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.

Edited by Rich Steeves

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