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ULA signs deal to deliver three-dozen booster cores

Posted: January 27, 2014

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - A blockbuster rocket-buying agreement has been signed between the Air Force and United Launch Alliance, the supplier of boosters for national security spaceflight.

Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Scriptunas Images
The deal aims to produce 36 booster cores for the Pentagon's use over the next few years of Atlas 5 and Delta 4 Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles. Delivery of the rockets through 2017 comes at a savings of $4.4 billion over previous estimates in President Obama's FY 2012 budget.

"We congratulate the Department of Defense for successfully leading efficient acquisition approaches and better buying practices by leveraging Economic Order Quantity (EOQ) purchasing to enable ULA to deliver several billions of dollars of savings to the U.S. Government over the contract period of performance," said Michael Gass, ULA president and CEO.

"ULA has been entrusted with the nation's most important and valuable national security space assets that provide our warfighters critical capabilities. With the award of this contract, ULA will continue to deliver the most capable and successful family of launch vehicles ever developed."

The first batch of 7 cores under the three dozen Block Buy are four Air Force missions -- Atlas 5-501, Atlas 5-511, Delta 4 Medium+ 4,2 and 5,4 rockets -- and one Delta 4-Heavy for the National Reconnaissance Office.

The goal strives to stabilize the rocket production business while giving the government the advantage of buying in bulk to drive down the costs of putting satellites into space.

"This contracting approach brings significant value to our customer and helps realize the cost savings ULA continues to achieve in consolidating the Atlas and Delta systems," said Gass.

"The contract provides the proper incentives to enable continued cost reductions while balancing risk to ensure continued mission success for these critical national missions. This contract also reflects the commitment of ULA and our suppliers to maintain our nation's national security needs while aggressively responding to the fiscal constraints the nation faces."

Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Scriptunas Images
Created in the 1990s as the next-generation families of boosters to haul all of the U.S. national security spacecraft, from the smallest weather satellites to the world's largest eavesdropping birds, the Air Force's EELV fleet has become the mainstay in spacelift operations today.

Both the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 were designed as modular systems with different sized nose cones for added room when needed, the ability to add varying numbers of strap-on solid motors for extra power, even two options for an upper stage on the Boeing vehicle to tailor a rocket to the payload it would carry. The result was phasing out the Air Force's reliance on the medium-class Delta 2 and Titan 2, the intermediate Atlas 2, heavy-lift Titan 4 rockets and all of the vast infrastructure needed for the four different rocket lines.

EELV was the path forward for military space, a collection of rockets built through just two systems to span the full range of needs the Pentagon could invision to keeping its constellations of communications, navigation and weather satellites flying high, plus delivering critical performance to the National Reconnaissance Office and its management of the overhead surveillance system for the U.S. government.

Although competition from upstart SpaceX could be in the offing later this decade, the Air Force conceived the EELV rockets with seed money to Lockheed Martin and Boeing to spur development of the Atlas 5 and the Delta 4, and now runs both systems with the United Launch Alliance.

In an effort to ensure both rocket lines remained viable for assured access to space and to erase the duplicate overhead costs, the two parent companies formed ULA in 2006 and transferred the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 products to the commercial firm that Gass has presided over since its inception.

ULA serves the Air Force, the spy satellite agency at the National Reconnaissance Office and NASA for government payload deployments.

Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Scriptunas Images
With retirement of the space shuttle, nixing the once-proposed Constellation program back to the Moon and a cloudy picture of what is next in exploration, the U.S. propulsion industry was thrown into a state of turmoil, causing prices to rise given the unknown future.

The inaugural launch for EELV came on Aug. 21, 2002, when an Atlas 5 carried a European television satellite to orbit for Eutelsat. The new era for U.S. rockets continued that November when the first Delta 4 blasted off carrying another commercial spacecraft for the same Paris-based operator, giving both EELVs a paying passenger on their debuts.

The first Air Force satellite flew on the third flight, sending a communications satellite for the troops into orbit in March 2003 atop a Delta 4.

The next major milestone in the program came in December 2004 when the heavy-lift version of Delta 4, a triple-barreled booster to carry the largest and heaviest payloads, soared on a test flight to iron out the bugs before the costliest national assets were entrusted to the vehicle on subsequent flights.

It was a fortuitous decision to conduct such a demonstration without a real satellite onboard. A phenomenon, called cavitation, caused bubbles to form in the liquid oxygen plumbing that fooled instrumentation into thinking the tanks were running empty, shutting down the main engines prematurely.

The condition was thoroughly analyzed and corrected, allowing Delta 4-Heavy to assume the big payload launches from the retiring Titan 4 rocket, fulfilling one of the primary purposes for EELV.

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