The U.S. Air Force believes that United Launch Alliance (ULA) had options that would have allowed it to bid on the initial GPS III launch in 2018, but, given ULA’s RD-180 engine supply, the company has decided instead to cede that launch to Elon Musk and his Hawthorne, Calif.-based launch services competitor SpaceX.
ULA believes to compete for future military space launches it must be able to procure additional Russian RD-180 rocket engines for its Atlas-V launcher, which it believes it cannot do under the current budget and policy.
The USAF issued a GPS III Launch Request For Proposals Sept. 30, with responses due Nov. 16 (yesterday).
Instead of responding to the RFP the company said today, “ULA wants nothing more than to compete, but unfortunately we are unable to submit a compliant bid for GPS III launch services.”
“The RFP required ULA to certify that funds from other government contracts will not benefit the GPS III launch mission,” said ULA. “ULA does not have the accounting systems in place to make that certification, and therefore cannot submit a compliant proposal.”
AmericaSpace had already reported weeks ago, on Oct. 29, that ULA Chairman Tory Bruno said then that ULA would not bid on the GPS III launch contract, leaving the Air Force with SpaceX as the sole launch provider for GPS III and other military space payloads. The Air Force did not want that to happen.
In an earlier conference call with reporters, the newly appointed Claire Leon, who heads the Launch Enterprise Directorate at the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, Calif., said ULA could indeed bid by:
- Reallocating Atlas V Russian RD-180 engines now intended for non-military missions. But ULA did not want to do that due to other contractural obligations.
- Await Congressional relief from a defense secretary ban on RD-180s, an option that never really developed.
- Or obtain a National Security Waiver from the ban on Russian RD-180s.
According to Space Policy Online. the Defense Department then in mid October decided to withdraw the offer of a waiver.
“The Department of Defense (DOD) has decided not to issue a waiver from current legal restrictions on the number of RD-180 engines the United Launch Alliance (ULA) can obtain to launch national security satellites,” said Space Policy Online.
“Deputy Secretary of Defense spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Courtney Hillson pointed to several restrictions,[affecting that decision] including legal constraints, that are complicating DOD’s efforts to ensure it has two sources of launch services.”
According to Space Policy, “he said the 2013 National Space Transportation Policy reasserts long standing guidance that the Secretary of Defense ensure, ‘to the maximum extent practicable, the availability of at least two U.S. space transportation vehicle families capable of reliably launching national security payloads.’”
ULA’s move will hand the initial GPS III launch in 2018 to SpaceX, but it will also pressure the U.S. government into freeing more RD-180 procurements or risk a SpaceX accident or other difficulty with no backup other than the tremendously more expensive Delta IV rocket, which has launched GPS-2F satellites in the past.
ULA said the Air Force GPS III launch solicitation “allows for no ability to differentiate between competitors on the basis of critical factors such as reliability, schedule certainty, technical capability and past performance.”
Meanwhile, another Atlas-V booster is already standing vertical and being readied to launch Orbital ATK’s new enhanced Cygnus spacecraft, named the Deke Slayton II, for a scheduled Dec. 3 flight on the OA-4 mission to deliver over 7,000 pounds of cargo and supplies to the International Space Station for NASA.
BOOKMARK our Cygnus OA-4 “Mission Tracker” for regular updates and LIVE COVERAGE from Cape Canaveral on launch day.
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