OPINION by Dale Skran, NSS Executive Vice President
On October 10th, 2018, the Air Force announced the funding recipients for National Security Space Launch program, the new name for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Currently the EELV program supports two “commercial” launchers, the Atlas V and the Delta IV. However, the EELV program has become unsustainable due to the high costs of the Delta IV and the usage of Russian RD-180 engines by the Atlas V. To the shock of many, SpaceX was not one of the companies receiving funding.
So, what up with that? The issue is not a lack of commitment on the part of the Air Force to using commercial vehicles in the EELV/NSSL program. The Air Force long ago gave up building “Air Force” brand rockets. Nor is the issue some technical failing on the part of SpaceX—the Air Force has used SpaceX to launch both a GPS satellite and the X37B. The fundamental issue is not the weakness of SpaceX, but its strength. SpaceX has gone from being the “new kid” on the block to the dominant U.S. launch company, with 21 total launches in 2018 alone. Since the United Launch Alliance (ULA), the other provider certified to launch EELV payloads along with SpaceX, is moving from the Atlas V/Delta IV to the all-new, untested Vulcan, in reality soon SpaceX will be the only certified EELV provider with a reliable vehicle.
Thus, the central goal of the Air Force in the NSSL program is to ensure that there is at least one viable competitor for SpaceX. The obvious choice for this role is ULA with its strong engineering team, knowledge of Air Force requirements, and quality-focused culture. Alas, since the Vulcan is an all-new rocket using the all-new methane-lox BE4 engine provided by Blue Origin, there is a non-zero risk that ULA will not be able to deliver the same reliable service it has in the past. To help ULA along, the Air Force granted it $967M.
But suppose ULA fails with the Vulcan? The obvious way to hedge the Air Force’s bet on the Vulcan is a grant of $500M to Blue Origin to bring the New Glenn to operational status. The New Glenn is just as capable as Vulcan, targeted for full first stage reusability, and backed by Jeff Bezo’s billions.
Blue Origin New Glenn rocket
What’s the fly in the ointment? Both the Vulcan and New Glenn use the same BE4 methane-lox engines for their first stages. There is another non-zero risk that despite vast promise, the methane-lox BE4 may not work out as hoped. To back-stop methane-lox the Air Force dropped $792M million on the Northup Grumman [former Orbital ATK] mostly solid-fueled OmegA rocket. This final investment by the Air Force serves two purposes: another level of redundancy in NSSL, and a subsidy to the solid-rocket industry that supports ICBM development. It is also worth noting that an investment in the SpaceX Super Heavy/Starship would not protect against systemic flaws in methane/lox engines, since SpaceX is building its future on the methane/lox Raptor engine.
Northrup Grumman OmegaA rocket.
Where does this leave SpaceX? More or less assured of a place as one of the two winners in the NSSL program. The Falcon 9 is already reliable, and getting more so all the time. The Falcon Heavy seems on a course to be nearly as reliable two years hence as the F9 is now. The Falcon 9 Block 5 technology has already demonstrated three flights of the same first stage, with more to come.
The battle for the second slot between ULA and Blue Origin will be awesome. For ULA, this is do or die. Blue, however, already has a backlog of commercial contracts for New Glenn, and promises to be strong competition for ULA. On Jan 31st, 2019, Blue announced that it had won a contract to launch an entire LEO datasat constellation for Telesat, with options ranging from 192 to 512 satellites. The ULA plan of re-using only the first stage engines but the entire second stage in space is intriguing. Equally intriguing is the New Glenn’s 7-meter fairing, promised first stage reusability, and potential 2nd stage reusability.
There remain two questions of interest. First—will the Air Force stick to its current plan of selecting only two providers, if both ULA and Blue are equally strong? Second—how will the 800 pound gorilla in the back room, the SpaceX Super Heavy/Starship, effect things?
The first question is imponderable, but the second is the more interesting. When 2022 rolls around, and the Air Force is ready to select the winners of NSSL, what will happen if they look out the window and see Super Heavy/Starship providing regular service to LEO/GEO, as well as launching to the Moon and Mars?
Reliability has always been the ace in the hole for ULA, but Vulcan is a new deck of cards. We could see a situation where 2023 rolls around, and both New Glenn and Super Heavy/Starship are in routine operation, launching 12 or more times annually, while Vulcan starts at zero and never comes anywhere close to catching up.
This is going to be interesting.