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Air Force says Constellation cuts could raise launch costs

Posted: March 15, 2010

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Leaders of the U.S. military's space programs told a Senate subcommittee last week that the cost and reliability of multiple liquid and solid propulsion rockets could suffer if NASA retires the space shuttle and cancels the Ares 1 booster.

File photo of a Delta 4 rocket launch. Credit: NASA-KSC
Officials specifically cited the unmanned Atlas and Delta rockets, saying their costs could soar in the next few years due to underutilized industrial capabilities and high vendor overhead.

The Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, which includes the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, sends robotic military and NASA missions to space.

"The propulsion systems for our EELVs might double in price, which is both solid-propellant and liquid-propellant rocket engines," said Gary Payton, undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs.

Payton and other military officials testified Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., specifically questioned Payton and other military space leaders about the impact of the end of the Constellation program.

Payton said he is worried that reliability of an array of space systems will diminish.

"I worry that eventually it will even lead to reductions in reliability," Payton said. "This goes all the way from the satellite solar arrays, to batteries on satellites, to propulsion systems on satellites and launch vehicles. The thing that worries me routinely is the extra costs that we have to put out to redesign our systems for suppliers who are no longer there."

Payton said the White House and NASA did not ask the Air Force about the effects of the Constellation program's termination on Pentagon space programs.

Payton singled out the Delta 4 rocket, which is powered by hydrogen-fueled RS-68 and RL10 engines for its first and second stages, respectively. He said the retirement of the Space Shuttle Main Engine and the cancellation of the J-2X propulsion system will deal a blow to engine-builder Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne

The J-2X engine was supposed to power the second stage of the defunct Ares 1 rocket.

Pratt & Whitney is also the builder of the RS-68 and RL 10 engines, and although the propulsion contractor has significantly reduced its fixed costs, the company's overhead could drive up the price of EELV engines, according to Payton.

A Pratt & Whitney spokesperson did not respond to questions on the issue.

"Even though they've already reduced their overhead dramatically in the past few years, they will still have more overhead and facility space than they need to produce those two rocket engines, the first stage engine and the second stage engine [of the Delta 4]," Payton said.

An RS-68 engine is test fired on the ground. Credit: NASA
United Launch Alliance, the industrial operator of the Atlas and Delta rocket families, is working on a common upper stage for both vehicles to increase efficiency and slash costs.

"Right now, we have three upper stages that we deliver to the fleet. We'd move to two, and they would be able to work on both Atlas and Delta," said Michael Gass, ULA's president and CEO, in a February interview.

The common upper stage started out as an internal ULA and Pratt & Whitney project, but the Pentagon may buy in soon.

"We're in the process in working with our government customers on a funding projection, and whether or not they want to invest in it, or if it's something that we're going to invest in on our own. Right now, we're looking at it as a joint investment with the U.S. government," Gass said.

It's all part of a long-term plan to improve the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 boosters, which will launch the bulk of military satellites and NASA science missions through at least 2020.

The Atlas 5 rocket's Centaur upper stage is also propelled by an RL10 engine. The Atlas first stage is powered by a Russian-built RD-180 engine.

"We have two RL10's, but they are different versions. Getting to a common [upper stage] version and common fairings are all in the trade space," Gass said. "We've laid out a good plan that takes us into the next decade and beyond that's going to improve reliability, lower costs and make the vehicles more operable each year, using the same framework that got us to this point, which is an evolutionary strategy, not revolutionary."

Payton said he planned to meet with officials from NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office later last week. Six military studies are underway analyzing rising EELV launch costs and potential issues with reliability and mission assurance, according to Payton.

"We're also looking at different ways to buy EELVs," Payton said. "That could perhaps save costs. There's a weath of studies that we're doing right now to look at what should an EELV cost."

But the EELV program could benefit from NASA investments in a commercial crew transportation program, a cornerstone of the agency's new human spaceflight plans.

Engineers prepare an RL10 for launch on a Delta 4 rocket. Credit: NASA
ULA won $6.7 million in seed money from NASA in February. The funding will go toward developing an emergency detection system, a vital step in human-rating company rockets for piloted missions.

Although increased NASA support for EELVs might ultimately reduce costs to the Department of Defense, Payton said the Pentagon will have to monitor any new demands on the rockets to ensure the military maintains adequate access to space.

"Concentrating more flights per year in the EELV program would possibly help us in acquiring the elements of a launch vehicle, the piece parts, the components. But we have to be very careful and understand and manage that relationship very closely," Payton said.

"It would not be beneficial for either organization to have a unique EELV for NASA applications and a unique EELV for DOD applications," Payton said. "That would aid neither agency."

Gass said ULA is committed to keeping both the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 available for any type of mission.

"The overall goal is still to be able to support the entire national security and NASA civil market with this family of vehicles, and we can basically do it on either one," Gass told Spaceflight Now last month. "We think we can do that and still get more commonality and the synergy that we're talking about in our product fleet."

Gen. Robert Kehler, head of Air Force Space Command, focused on the impact on solid rocket motors from the cancellation of NASA's Constellation program.

"There is a challenge here regarding solid rocket motors," Kehler told the Senate subcommittee. "That's the most immediate challenge that we see. The largest demand today on the solid rocket motor industrial base comes from NASA, although the Department of Defense, the Air Force and the Navy as well, rely on that same industrial base for both the land-based and the sea-based strategic deterrent, and for other launch vehicle solid rocket strap-ons that we need for EELV and other things."

Shuttle solid rocket boosters, the Ares 1 first stage, Delta rocket strap-on motors and Minuteman and Trident missile stages are all manufactured by ATK, a major defense and aerospace contractor.

The space shuttle will be retired later this year, the Ares rocket has been shelved, and ATK just completed a contract to build new rocket motors for the Minuteman missile to replace aging systems in the U.S. strategic arsenal.

The Missile Defense Agency also terminated the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, another ATK project, and the company is producing fewer strap-on boosters with the pending retirement of the Delta 2 rocket.

The final space shuttle solid rocket motor ground test occurred last month in Utah. Credit: Ben Cooper/Spaceflight Now
The simultaneous conclusion of large strategic programs, retirement of the space shuttle, and upcoming termination of the Constellation contract creates a "perfect storm" threatening the solid propulsion industrial base, according to ATK executives.

Production of solid rocket propellant has declined for the last two decades, but the figures could take a nose dive starting this year.

"It's been marching down a gradual path, and then we approach 2009 and 2010 and we go into a Marianas Trench of propellant being produced," said Hal Murdock, ATK's director of business development for strategic and commercial systems.

ATK's concerns have reached both Capitol Hill and the Pentagon.

Congressman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is highlighting the Constellation cancellation impacts on industry. Bishop represents the Utah district containing ATK's solid rocket propulsion division.

When asked by lawmakers for the most serious challenge facing military space programs, Payton cited eroding industrial capabilities that could force costs higher.

"One of the things that's most frustrating to me is the space industrial base," Payton said. "Our costs are going up because a number of the second and third-tier players are getting out of the space business. They are getting out because they cannot compete effectively with overseas competitors for a worldwide market. That is our increasing our costs."