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ULA, SpaceX win landmark multibillion-dollar launch agreements with Pentagon

Artist’s concept of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. Credit: ULA

United Launch Alliance and SpaceX beat out Northrop Grumman and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin for billions of dollars in U.S. military rocket contracts, and will share the load in launching the Pentagon’s highest-priority national security space missions through 2027, officials announced Friday.

ULA, the 50-50 joint venture formed in 2006 by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, will get 60 percent of the military’s most critical satellite launch contracts awarded through late 2024 for missions that will take off between 2022 and late 2027. SpaceX will receive 40 percent of the national security launch contracts over the same period, the Pentagon said.

The Pentagon did not select proposals submitted by Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin.

The agreements cover contracts to launch satellites for the U.S. Space Force, the National Reconnaissance Office, the Missile Defense Agency, and other military services and agencies, providing an anchor customer for SpaceX and ULA.

“This is a groundbreaking day, culminating years of strategic planning and effort by the Department of the Air Force, NRO, and our launch service industry partners,” said Will Roper, assistant secretary of the U.S. Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics. “Maintaining a competitive launch market, servicing both government and commercial customers, is how we encourage continued innovation on assured access to space.”

The agreements with ULA and SpaceX are part of Phase 2 of the Pentagon’s effort to transition military satellite launches off of rockets using Russian-made RD-180 engines, and onto vehicles with U.S.-built engines. ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket has launched more national security satellites than any other rocket currently in service, and its first stage is powered by the RD-180 engine.

The procurement strategy is also intended to reduce launch costs for the Pentagon.

“We have been stuck on Russian RD-180 engines for too long,” Roper said Friday in a conference call with reporters. It is a risk to our national security, so many years ago the Air Force decided to create an acquisition strategy to get us through the sole-source environment that we were in with a single rocket provider, and still tied to Russian engines, (and) build up a competitive U.S. industry base that would ultimately culminate in today, in a Phase 2 award to two vendors.”

The announcement Friday also marked the end of a hard-fought competition between four major players in the U.S. space industry for a chance at billions of dollars in revenue from lucrative military launch contracts.

ULA is developing the next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket, with all U.S.-made engines, to replace its Atlas and Delta launch vehicles, and SpaceX offered the Pentagon its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets already in service, albeit with some modifications to meet the military’s demanding launch requirements.

“ULA is honored to be selected as one of two launch providers in this procurement,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO. “Vulcan Centaur is the right choice for critical national security space missions and was purpose built to meet all of the requirements of our nation’s space launch needs.

“For decades, we have been a trusted partner to safely and securely deliver strategic national security space assets for our nation’s defense and this award shows the continued confidence of our customer in the commitment and dedication of our people to safeguard these missions by reliably launching our country’s most critical and challenging missions,” Bruno said in a statement.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment Friday on the Pentagon launch contract award.

Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch vehicle were also in the running.

Despite losing out on the Phase 2 awards with their own rockets, Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin will still get business through national security launches. Northrop Grumman will supply solid rocket boosters and Blue Origin will build BE-4 main engines for ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket.

“We evaluated every proposal by the published award criteria, technical factors being first and foremost, then followed by past performance, their ability to work with small business, and then finally totally evaluated price,” Roper said. “Every proposal is evaluated. We call the ball and strikes as they are, and the ability to meet those technical factors — to do the mission –is the most important thing above all.”

For nearly a decade, the Pentagon awarded sole-source national security launch contracts to ULA, which builds and operates the fleet of Atlas and Delta rockets that have delivered to orbit nearly all of the military’s large reconnaissance, surveillance, communications, navigation and missile warning satellites currently in use.

But rising launch costs, pressure from upstart SpaceX, and worsening diplomatic relations with Russia prompted the Air Force to rethink its rocket procurement strategy for the military’s highest-priority space missions. Congress also passed a law in 2014 — after Russia’s annexation of Crimea — that capped the number of RD-180 engines the military could use to launch national security satellites before transitioning to a rocket with U.S.-made propulsion.

File photo of a Falcon Heavy launch in April 2019. Credit: SpaceX

The highest-priority class of payloads was previously part of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, program. Last year, military officials renamed the EELV program as the National Security Space Launch, or NSSL, program as the Pentagon moved into a new era of launch services, which include reusable rockets.

The Air Force ended competition for its EELV-class missions when the Pentagon approved the Boeing and Lockheed Martin consolidation in 2006, a decision ULA and military officials said was necessary to ensure the survival of the Atlas and Delta rocket families to launch U.S. national security satellites.

Pentagon officials say the military needs two independent launchers to ensure crucial payloads can get to space even if one of the rockets is grounded.

The Air Force certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch national security satellites in 2015, a process the military promised to speed up after SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the Air Force the previous year protesting the Pentagon’s $11 billion “block buy” sole-source order of Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets in 2013.

Military officials made more launch contracts available for competition between ULA and SpaceX in an intermediate “Phase 1A” procurement round before moving on to Phase 2, which required rockets use only U.S.-made engines.

The Air Force awarded funding to Aerojet Rocketdyne, Northrop Grumman, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance in 2016 as part of cost-sharing public-private partnerships with industry to advance research and development of new U.S. rocket propulsion systems.

In 2018, the Air Force selected Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance for the next round of launch service agreement awards. Those agreements were cumulatively valued at around $2.3 billion.

SpaceX, which was the only company competing with a rocket already flying, was left out of the development contracts awarded in 2018.

The Pentagon also announced Friday the first three firm-fixed-price launch contracts awarded by the U.S. Space Force under the NSSL program’s Phase 2 agreements.

Two of those missions, designated USSF-51 and USSF-106, were awarded to ULA for launches in the the first quarter and third quarter of calendar year 2022. SpaceX won a task order to launch the USSF-67 mission in the third quarter of calendar year 2022.

ULA received $337 million in the task orders announced Friday, while SpaceX was awarded $316 million.

If ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, which scheduled to debut in 2021, is not certified for the national security missions in 2022, ULA could offer an Atlas 5 rocket — with its Russian-made engine — as an alternative for the USSF-51 and USSF-106 missions.

A contract announcement posted on a Defense Department website said the contracts include “early integration studies, launch service support, fleet surveillance, launch vehicle production, mission integration, mission launch operations, mission assurance, spaceflight worthiness, and mission unique activities for each mission.”

Roper said of the 18 RD-180 engines Congress has allowed the Pentagon to buy through 2022 for national security missions, 12 remain available for purchase. There’s no prohibition on when the engines can actually launch a national security mission, just that the Pentagon can’t procure any more launches using the RD-180 engines after 2022.

“By the end of ’22, we cannot buy any more RD-180 engines,” Roper said. “We do have 12 engines that are available should we need to use those engines beyond the ’22 mark. We’re allowed to use them. We’re just allowed to purchase more. So the reason that this Phase 2 award weighted technical performance — technical merit — as the No. 1 priority is that we have to ensure that we get off of those engines.

“I’m very confident with the selection that we have made today that we have a very low risk path to get off the RD-180 engines on time and to not have to dip into that surplus that we have available, though we’re glad to know it’s there should we need it.”

The three task orders unveiled Friday are just the tip of the iceberg for ULA and SpaceX, which stand to compete head-to-head for dozens more national security launches contracts over the next four years. The U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, or SMC, will order launch services annually from ULA and SpaceX, the military said in a statement.

Roper said military officials estimated SMC would order 32 to 34 national security launches during the five-year period covered by the Phase 2 agreements. But there is some uncertainty in that number, Roper said.

“It is an indefinite quantity contract because we wanted to be ready for a number of launches that can be in flux,” Roper said Friday.

That will help ensure ULA and SpaceX can relay on a steady “drum beat” of launches for the Pentagon, supplementing commercial missions on their launch manifests, he said.

“So there’s no ceiling on this contract,” Roper said. “It’s driven by the number of launches that we and the NRO, and organizations like the Missile Defense Agency and the Space Development Agency need.

“We’re very excited within the Space Force to provide a launch capability to the entire department that its dependable and reliable, and we look forward to building on the 81-out-81 mission success that the Air Force, and now the Space Force, has provided over the past years,” Roper said.

Artist’s illustration of Northrop Grumman’s planned OmegA rocket, which lost out in the Pentagon’s Phase 2 launch contract awards. The OmegA rocket’s design is based on two solid-fueled core stages and a liquid-fueled upper stage. Credit: Northrop Grumman

While SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have the lift capacity to meet the Pentagon’s launch requirements, which include access to unusual, hard-to-reach orbits, there will be some changes on the launch vehicles and ground systems to accommodate the new missions.

For the Pentagon’s Phase 2 missions, SpaceX did not propose using the company’s next-generation Starship launch vehicle.

“It’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, no Starship,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, last year. “We bid to meet every requirement. The only modifications we need are an extended fairing on the Falcon Heavy, and we are going to have to build a vertical integration capability. But we are basically flying the rockets that they need.

“There are more data requirements they’re asking for, some additional inspection, some additional stuff that’s new to Phase 2,” she said. “I believe some of the reference orbits have slightly more mass to each orbit. But Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are beasts as they are.”

The most significant upgrades SpaceX plans for the Phase 2 missions are the construction of a new moveable gantry on pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where the company launches powerful Falcon Heavy rockets. The mobile tower will sit just to the north of the pad’s launch mount, enabling SpaceX to satisfy military requirements to vertically integrate sensitive top secret spy satellites.

Read our earlier story for details on the dimensions and requirement for the gantry.

SpaceX will also introduce a larger payload envelope to fit some of the biggest satellites that need to be launched on the Phase 2 missions. The company could expand its Falcon 9 launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to accommodate the Falcon Heavy, which uses three Falcon 9 first stage boosters bolted together.

The NSSL missions include the military’s most expensive and critical payloads, such as school bus-sized spy satellites, nuclear-hardened communications satellites to link the president with military commanders, spacecraft to detect enemy missile launches, and the GPS navigation fleet used around the world.

The Space Force has other launch procurement mechanisms to award launch service contracts for smaller missions, such as technology demonstration satellites.

Roper said the Pentagon will work with Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman to wind down their work under the launch service agreements awarded in 2018.

“The goal is not to carry them indefinitely,” Roper said. “So we will tie off the (launch service agreement) contracts as soon as we can at a point that makes sense. We want to make sure that work that’s in flux, that we’re able to document that … Where the government has rights to the data and the work, we want to make sure that we retain those.”

In a statement, Northrop Grumman said it was disappointed in the Pentagon’s decision to go with ULA and SpaceX for the Phase 2 awards.

“We are confident we submitted a strong proposal that reflected out extensive space launch experience and provided value to our customer, and we are looking forward to our debriefing from the customer,” Northrop Grumman said.

The fate of Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket program is uncertain. Building on its recent acquisition of Orbital ATK, the defense contractor designed the OmegA launch vehicle to be profitable with just a handful of launches per year, with an emphasis on capabilities aimed at the U.S. military’s requirements.

In recent months, construction crews have been assembling a tower on a mobile launch platform for the OmegA rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Charlie Precourt, vice president of propulsion systems at Northrop Grumman, said in an interview in June that qualification test-firings of the OmegA rocket’s solid-fueled stages were completed, and engineers were gearing up for a test-firing of the launcher’s hydrogen-fueled upper stage before the end of this year.

Precourt said in June that the OmegA rocket was on schedule to be ready for its first test launch from pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in mid-2021. But that assumed Northrop Grumman would win a Phase 2 award from the Pentagon.

Blue Origin says development of its New Glenn rocket will continue in pursuit of business in the commercial and civil space markets.

The huge privately-developed rocket is the largest of all the launchers that were part of the Phase 2 competition. Capable of deploying up to 99,000 pounds, or 45 metric tons, to low Earth orbit, the New Glenn will have a reusable first stage powered by seven BE-4 engines.

ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket will have two methane-fueled BE-4 engines on its first stage.

Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon.com, established Blue Origin in 2000. Bezos is funding the development of the New Glenn rocket, which is estimated to cost more than $2.5 billion, including construction of a huge factory near the Kennedy Space Center and a launch pad and test facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Bob Smith, Blue Origin’s CEO, said the company was disappointed the New Glenn was not selected for a Phase 2 launch service procurement contract.

“We submitted an incredibly compelling offer for the national security community and the U.S. taxpayer,” Smith said. “Blue Origin’s offer was based on New Glenn’s heavy-lift performance, unprecedented private investment of more than $2.5 billion, and a very competitive single basic launch service price for any mission across the entire ordering period.

“We are proceeding with New Glenn development to fulfill our current commercial contracts, pursue a large and growing commercial market, and enter into new civil space launch contracts,” Smith said. “We remain confident New Glenn will play a critical role for the national security community in the future due to the increasing realization that space is a contested domain and a robust, responsive, and resilient launch capability is ever more vital to U.S security.”

The Pentagon plans to open another competition for a Phase 2 launch service procurement later in the 2020s.

“We don’t think that this is the last round of innovation that we’re going see, and though we’re excited for the next five years of Phase 2, we’re looking ahead to Phase 3 five years from now, and are just wondering what new leap-ahead, lower-cost technologies might be on the forefront to make assured access to space not just assured, but cheaper,” Roper said.

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ULA, SpaceX win contracts to launch satellites for SES in 2022

File photo of a previous Atlas 5 launch in the “531” configuration with three solid rocket boosters. Credit: United Launch Alliance

SES has selected United Launch Alliance and SpaceX to launch up to five new commercial C-band communications satellites from Cape Canaveral in 2022 aboard Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 rockets, officials announced Wednesday.

Two Boeing-built communications satellites will launch together on a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, and two telecom craft made by Northrop Grumman will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, according to SES, a global communications satellite operator based in Luxembourg.

The SES 18 and 19 satellites, based on Northrop Grumman’s GEOStar 3 satellite platform, will launch stacked together on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in 2022, SES said. SES also awarded SpaceX a contract to launch another C-band satellite if required.

The SES 20 and 21 communications satellites are slated to launch in tandem aboard a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, also in 2022, SES said.

SES ordered the four satellites from Boeing and Northrop Grumman in June to replace C-band capacity being transitioned to 5G cellular network services by the Federal Communications Commission. At the same time, Intelsat ordered six new C-band communications satellites from Maxar and Northrop Grumman as part of its C-band transition plan. Launch services contracts for the new Intelsat satellites have not been announced.

SES said it considered only U.S. launchers when awarding the launch services contracts, and having the new satellites in geostationary orbit on time is a high priority. That essentially left ULA and SpaceX as the only companies eligible for the contracts.

Financial terms for the launch contracts were not disclosed by SES, SpaceX, or ULA.

Suzanne Ong, an SES spokesperson, said the division of launch contracts between ULA and SpaceX — rivals in the U.S. launch business — fit the different offerings provided by the Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 rockets.

The Atlas 5 rocket will deploy the SES 20 and 21 satellites into a higher orbit, utilizing the long-duration, multiple-restart capability of the rocket’s Centaur upper stage. That will place the satellites closer to their final operating positions in geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) over the equator.

SES 20 and 21 will be built by Boeing and based on the Boeing 702SP spacecraft bus with all-electric propulsion. Electric thrusters are more efficient than conventional rocket engines, allowing the satellite to need less fuel during its mission. That results in a lighter satellite.

But the electric thrusters do not have as much thrust as a liquid-fueled thruster, so it takes longer for a satellite with all-electric propulsion to reach geostationary orbit.

“The Boeing 702SP satellites, relying only on electrical propulsion, would take longer to reach designated geostationary orbit if launched on SpaceX,” Ong said in response to questions from Spaceflight Now. “This is the reason why ULA is launching Boeing satellites and SpaceX is launching the NG (Northrop Grumman) satellites.”

Jessica Rye, a ULA spokesperson, said the SES 20 and 21 satellites will launch on the “531” variant of the Atlas 5 rocket with a 5-meter payload fairing and three strap-on solid rocket boosters. That configuration has flown three times to date, and is set to launch a fourth time in September with a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency.

File photo of a Falcon 9 launch from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: SpaceX

“Clearing mid-band spectrum expeditiously while protecting cable neighborhoods across America is a huge undertaking and one that requires partners that can deliver mission success and schedule assurance,” said Steve Collar, CEO at SES. “We are thrilled to be working with ULA again and partnering to meet the FCC’s ambitious timeline for the accelerated clearing of C-band spectrum.”

“We are pleased SES selected ULA and our proven Atlas 5 for this important commercial launch service,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO. “Atlas 5 is known for its unmatched level of schedule certainty and reliability and this launch is critical to the timely clearing of C-band spectrum, empowering America’s accelerated implementation of 5G.

“ULA’s legacy of performance, precision and mission design flexibility allow us to deliver a tailored launch service that minimizes orbit raising time and perfectly meet our customer’s requirements,” Bruno said in a statement. “We are thrilled to provide this optimized launch solution to SES for this crucial launch.”

Two SES satellites have launched on previous Atlas 5 rocket missions in 2004 and 2006. ULA now has two commercial launches in its Atlas 5 backlog, along with a ViaSat 3 broadband payload due to fly on the most power Atlas 5 configuration with five solid rocket boosters.

The Northrop Grumman-built SES 18 and 19 satellites will use a combination of electric and liquid propulsion for post-launch orbit-raising maneuvers.

“We have a deep and trusted relationship with SpaceX having been the first to launch a commercial satellite with them and subsequently the first commercial company to adopt the flight-proven booster and we could not be more confident in their ability to deliver on this time-critical mission,” Collar said in a statement.

Six SES satellites have launched on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets to date.

“SES is one of SpaceX‘s most-valued partners, and we are proud of their continued trust in our capabilities to reliably deliver their satellites to orbit,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer. “We are excited to once again play a role in executing SES’s solutions to meet their customers’ needs.”

SES will soon order two additional C-band satellites from U.S. manufacturers as ground spares. The contract option with SpaceX to place a third C-band satellite into orbit would cover the launch of one of the ground spares, Ong said.

“The ground spares will only be launched if there is a systematic problem that delays the satellite construction, or if there is a launch failure or any other issue that puts the accelerated clearing schedule at risk,” Ong said in response to questions from Spaceflight Now. “In case of a launch failure, SpaceX will launch one of the other C-band satellites that SES will order soon.”

The four SES satellites are part of the Federal Communications Commission’s order finalized earlier this year to clear 300 megahertz of C-band spectrum for the roll-out of 5G mobile connectivity networks.

The FCC plans to auction U.S. C-band spectrum — currently used for satellite-based video broadcast services to millions of customers — to 5G operators in December. In compensation for losing the spectrum, Intelsat is set to receive $4.87 billion and SES will get $3.97 billion from 5G bidders if they can accelerate the transition of C-band services to a smaller swath of spectrum by December 2023, two years before the FCC’s mandated deadline.

Artist’s concept of the SES 20 and SES 21 communications satellites to be manufactured by Boeing. Credit: Boeing

Intelsat and SES — along with operators with a smaller share of the U.S. C-band market — will also be reimbursed for their C-band relocation costs, including satellite manufacturing and launch expenses.

As part of the agreement, the satellite operators were incentivized to buy new C-band broadcasting satellites from U.S. manufacturers to operate in the 4.0 to 4.2 gigahertz swath of the C-band spectrum. The lower portion of the band previously allocated to satellite operators — 3.7 to 4.0 megahertz — is being transitioned to 5G services.

Ong said the ground spares SES is set to order soon will be available to launch on short notice to ensure SES can meet the FCC’s deadline to clear the upper part of the C-band spectrum for 5G services.

When it ordered the four new satellites from Boeing and Northrop Grumman in June, SES said each satellite will have 10 primary transponders, plus back-up equipment, to deliver television services to more than 120 million homes and enable other critical data services. At that time, SES said the satellites are scheduled for launch in the third quarter of 2022.

SES said in May that its board of directors approved an investment envelope of $1.6 billion to procure and launch the new C-band satellites, and pay for other equipment and services, such as signal filters on ground antennas, to accommodate the C-band transition to 5G services.

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SpaceX, ULA to launch C-band satellites for SES

WASHINGTON — Commercial satellite operator SES has selected SpaceX and United Launch Alliance to each launch two geostationary satellites designed to replace C-band capacity in the United States that the Federal Communications Commission is repurposing for 5G cellular networks. 

SpaceX’s agreement includes room to launch one additional “contingency satellite” that has not yet been ordered. 

SES said Aug. 5 that ULA will launch two satellites built by Boeing on a single Atlas 5 in 2022. SpaceX will launch two satellites built by Northrop Grumman on a Falcon 9 rocket that same year. 

SES emphasized its decision to procure exclusively U.S.-built satellites and rockets, as the cost for both will be covered by winning bidders of the FCC’s December C-band spectrum auction. In both launch announcements, SES said it is “investing in America” as it works to repack customers using 500 megahertz of C-band spectrum today into 200 megahertz by early December 2023. 

SES, along with Intelsat and Eutelsat, are under pressure — but not required — to rely on U.S. companies for replacement C-band satellites and associated infrastructure and services. 

The companies told the FCC two years ago that they would exclusively order U.S.-built satellites if the FCC allowed them (with Telesat) to privately auction C-band spectrum, a move expected to generate upwards of $60 billion in proceeds. 

The FCC, facing congressional opposition to a private auction, ultimately chose a public auction where proceeds will be directed to the U.S. treasury. But the FCC adopted auction rules requiring winning bidders to pay for moving costs so satellite operators can continue to serve their C-band customers, mainly television broadcasters, with less spectrum. 

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who chairs a Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FCC, wrote FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in May urging the commission to require satellite operators buy their reimbursable replacement C-band infrastructure from U.S. companies. 

“If the American taxpayer is ultimately going to foot the bill of foreign satellite companies, then we need to ensure as much of that money stays here at home as possible,” Kennedy wrote. 

Pai, during a June 16 Senate hearing, told Kennedy that the FCC had no authority to mandate U.S. purchases absent a national security justification. 

SES has nonetheless sought to steer clear of additional congressional heat by sourcing auction-related satellites and launch services solely from U.S. companies. 

SES described ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket as “an American launch vehicle launched from the American soil,” language similar to the way NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine describes the agency’s commercial crew program

SES said its “long-standing relationship with SpaceX signifies its latest commitment to the U.S.”

The Luxembourg-based operator plans to order two more C-band satellites, according to the company’s spectrum transition plan filed to the FCC in June. The company estimates spending $1.67 billion on C-band infrastructure — $1.25 billion on replacement satellites and launches, and $420 million on ground infrastructure and other costs. 

SES is striving to meet a December 2023 target to vacate the spectrum in order to receive $3.97 billion in incentive payments for clearing C-band on an accelerated timeline. The FCC is mandating satellite operators exit the lower 300 megahertz of C-band by December 2025, but has set up a program to incentivize exits two years sooner. Those incentive payments, like the reimbursements for replacement satellites, would come from the auction’s winners. 

SpaceX and ULA released statements on the SES launch awards. 

“SES is one of SpaceX‘s most-valued partners, and we are proud of their continued trust in our capabilities to reliably deliver their satellites to orbit,” SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said in a news release. “We are excited to once again play a role in executing SES’s solutions to meet their customers’ needs.”

ULA president and chief executive Tory Bruno said the company will “deliver a tailored launch service that minimizes orbit raising time and perfectly meet our customer’s requirements.” 

“We are thrilled to provide this optimized launch solution to SES for this crucial launch,” he said. 

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Safety panel concerned about quality control on Boeing crew capsule

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft that flew on the Orbital Flight Test mission is pictured last November outside the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Alex Polimeni/Spaceflight Now

Members of NASA’s independent panel of aerospace safety advisors raised concerns last week about quality control problems that “seemingly have plagued” Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule program, while urging NASA to closely monitor SpaceX’s plans to reuse Crew Dragon spaceships on astronaut flights to the International Space Station.

An unpiloted test flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft in December ended prematurely after a programming error in the capsule’s mission elapsed timer caused the ship to burn too much fuel shortly after separating from its Atlas 5 rocket.

The unexpected fuel consumption left the Starliner capsule with insufficient propellant to complete its flight to the space station.

The Starliner landed safely in New Mexico two days later, but ground teams identified another software problem in a propulsion controller governing thrusters on the spacecraft’s service module, which jettisons from the Starliner crew module before re-entry into the atmosphere. Mission control uplinked a software patch shortly before re-entry, eliminating a risk that the mis-configured propulsion controller could have caused the jettisoned service module to ram into the crew module after separation.

There were also problems with the Starliner’s communications system during the unpiloted demonstration mission, known as the Orbital Flight Test, or OFT.

An independent review team that investigated the problems during the OFT mission issued 80 recommendations for Boeing and NASA engineers to address software issues, the communications problem, and management oversight shortfalls in oversight that contributed to the problems on last year’s test flight.

Donald McErlean, a seasoned aerospace industry consultant and member of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said July 23 that Boeing is making progress toward resolving the technical problems. Boeing plans to fly a second, previously-unplanned Starliner Orbital Flight Test to the space station late this year, followed by a Crew Flight Test in the first half of 2021 with a three-person team of astronauts on-board.

“However, despite this progress, which is definite and in fact measurable, the panel continues to be concerned about quality control problems that seemingly have plagued the Boeing commercial crew program,” said McErlean, a former chief engineer for the U.S. Navy’s aviation programs.

Boeing performed a pad abort test of a Starliner crew capsule last November, the month before the Orbital Flight Test. One of the capsule’s three main parachutes did not deploy after an otherwise-successful test of the spacecraft’s abort engines, and Boeing traced that problem to a missing pin in the parachute’s rigging.

“We realize that the CCP (Commercial Crew Program) has been working with the safety and engineering communities to address these issues, but this is still an issue that the panel will continue to watch closely as OFT and later CFT are conducted,” McErlean said.

The panel recommended NASA’s Commercial Crew Program “maintain a balance” between setting and achieving schedule milestones and ensuring managers make appropriate technical decisions, according to McErlean.

Boeing developed the Starliner spacecraft under contract to NASA, which is seeking to end its sole reliance on Russian Soyuz crew capsules to ferry astronauts to and from the space station. NASA awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract and SpaceX received a $2.6 billion deal in 2014 to complete development of the Starliner and Crew Dragon spaceships.

The public-private partnerships were designed to end U.S. reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for crew transportation to and from the space station.

While Boeing still has at least two Starliner test flights — one without crew members and one with astronauts — before the capsule is declared operational, SpaceX is nearing the end of the Crew Dragon development program. The human-rated capsule launched with astronauts for the first time May 30 on the Demo-2 mission, and delivered NASA test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station the next day.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft approaches the International Space Station on May 31 with astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on-board. Credit: NASA

Hurley and Behnken are scheduled to depart the station Aug. 1 and splash down off the Florida coast Aug. 2, completing a mission spanning more than two months. Once the Crew Dragon is back on Earth, SpaceX and NASA engineers plan to formally certify the SpaceX crew capsule for regular crew rotation missions to the space station, beginning with a launch as soon as late September from the Kennedy Space Center carrying four astronauts to the orbiting research complex for a six-month expedition.

The mission scheduled for launch in late September — known as Crew-1 — will be followed by at least five more operational Crew Dragon missions through 2024.

NASA last month said it will allow SpaceX to reuse Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 boosters for NASA astronaut missions. NASA says SpaceX could begin reusing Crew Dragon vehicles and Falcon 9 first stages on crewed launches beginning with the second post-certification mission, or Crew-2.

The Crew-2 launch is scheduled in February 2021. The Crew-1 mission — SpaceX’s first operational astronaut flight — is slated to fly with a brand new Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket.

Each of SpaceX’s operational crew rotation flights to the space station will carry up to four astronauts, including space fliers from NASA and the space station’s international partners.

NASA has assigned astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker to the Crew-1 mission. Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi will join the U.S. astronauts on the Crew Dragon spacecraft.

“You are seeing the beginning of the rotational use of the commercial crew systems in transporting our astronauts to the ISS,” McErlean said.

In the safety panel’s July 23 public meeting, McErlean said SpaceX currently plans to refurbish and reuse the Crew Dragon spacecraft that is flying on the Demo-2 mission on the Crew-2 mission next year. That crew capsule was named Dragon Endeavour by Hurley and Behnken soon after their launch in May.

SpaceX also aims to reuse the Falcon 9 rocket booster assigned to the Crew-1 mission again on the Crew-2 launch next year, McErlean said.

“So in this case, Crew-2 will be fully utilizing the SpaceX reuse philosophy,” McErlean said. “Although reuse has been successful in prior launches, the use of previously-flown hardware for a human spaceflight mission is unique, and it will create some additional work for NASA, who must address the human certification requirements.”

Boeing also plans to reuse Starliner crew capsules on multiple flights. Unlike the Crew Dragon, which splashes down at sea, the Starliner parachutes to an airbag-cushioned touchdown on land.

McErlean, speaking for the safety advisory panel, said NASA must also keep up with SpaceX’s philosophy of “constantly evolving vehicle designs” with an “ongoing formal safety-related process” to ensure the modifications remain within the agency’s human-rating certification requirements.

“With the completion of the Demo-2 mission and appropriate vehicle changes driven by the data gathered during that mission, NASA will have a essentially concluded the required certification process for flying NASA personnel on SpaceX hardware,” McErlean said. “However, it is the panel’s opinion that given the SpaceX approach to hardware upgrades, NASA has to decide by what processes it will continue to monitor vehicle and system changes to ensure that those changes still remain within an appropriately certified safety posture for human spaceflight operations.”

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