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Space The Military United States

ULA Concedes GPS Launch Competition To SpaceX (spacenews.com) 55

schwit1 writes: ULA has decided against bidding on a military GPS launch contract, leaving the field clear for SpaceX. "ULA, which for the past decade has launched nearly every U.S. national security satellite, said Nov. 16 it did not submit a bid to launch a GPS 3 satellite for the Air Force in 2018 in part because it does not expect to have an Atlas 5 rocket available for the mission. ULA has been pushing for relief from legislation Congress passed roughly a year ago requiring the Air Force to phase out its use of the Russian-made RD-180 engine that powers ULA's workhorse Atlas 5 rocket."

This decision might be a lobbying effort by ULA to force Congress to give them additional waivers on using the Atlas 5 engine. Or they could be realizing they wouldn't be able to match SpaceX's price, and decided it was pointless wasting time and money putting together a bid. Either way, the decision suggests ULA is definitely challenged in its competition with SpaceX, and until it gets a new, lower cost rocket that is not dependent on Russian engines, its ability to compete in the launch market will be seriously hampered.

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ULA Concedes GPS Launch Competition To SpaceX

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  • by sasparillascott ( 1267058 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2015 @08:53AM (#50954187)
    ULA also has the Delta 4 rocket which uses U.S. designed / made rocket engines. Previously they were letting the 3 core Delta 4 handle the big launches and the single core Atlas 5 handle the smaller launches, but there is no reason they couldn't have bid with a single core Delta 4 if they wanted. Something smells politically fishy with this.
    • ULA, the monopoly provider of such launches since its creation in 2006, said it was unable to submit a compliant bid because of the way the competition was structured.

      Basically, Lockheed and Boeing collaborated on every launch (under the United Launch Alliance), removing any competition from the equation, and undoubtedly, all cost controls.

    • My guess is that a larger, more powerful rocket could not be bid in an economically feasible way.

    • by Fire_Wraith ( 1460385 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2015 @10:07AM (#50954497)
      They could have, but their bid would have been in no way competitive with SpaceX since the Delta 4 is a lot more expensive, and doesn't make economic sense to use on a small launch.

      Another interesting point is that ULA has the full production rights, schematics, etc for the RD-180 engine, as that was part of the original deal. However, it would cost a lot of money to set up production, and on top of that, their production costs would be more expensive than just buying the engines from the Russians. Thus, ULA doesn't want to do that if they can avoid it, and would rather try to convince Congress to let them resume buying from Russia, at least until the newer engines they've made deals with Blue Origin to build are available.
      • They could have, but their bid would have been in no way competitive with SpaceX since the Delta 4 is a lot more expensive, and doesn't make economic sense to use on a small launch.

        SpaceX should seize the opportunity to set their bidding to whatever ULA was charging before SpaceX came along. That's what happens when "bidding contracts" can be fulfilled by exactly one supplier. Isn't that what the Russians did with sending NASA astronaughts to the ISS? NASA is now paying >60 million USD per seat, when the shuttle was flying the cost was 20 million USD per seat.

        • They could have, but their bid would have been in no way competitive with SpaceX since the Delta 4 is a lot more expensive, and doesn't make economic sense to use on a small launch.

          SpaceX should seize the opportunity to set their bidding to whatever ULA was charging before SpaceX came along. That's what happens when "bidding contracts" can be fulfilled by exactly one supplier. Isn't that what the Russians did with sending NASA astronaughts to the ISS? NASA is now paying >60 million USD per seat, when the shuttle was flying the cost was 20 million USD per seat.

          According to NASA the average cost of a shuttle launch was $450 million dollars*. When were they sending up a crowd of 23 people per launch? (The largest crew every flown was 8.)

          *Even this is a low-ball that does not include the cost of the ground infrastructure required to support the shuttle, nor pro-rating development costs. The total program cost, adjusted for inflation, was $200 billion, and there were 135 launches, for a naive per-launch cost of $1.5 billion per. That would require 75 people to bring

          • Your figures assume that there was nothing of value in the cargo bay. Even on a ISS resupply mission the mass in the shuttle bay would be figured to be the higher portion of the launch expense.

            (I still think the $20 million figure was a bit fudged...)
          • The $20 million is what Russia was charging for a Soyuz seat back when Shuttle was flying. Now that the Shuttle is retired and US has no other option for sending astronauts to ISS, they've upped the price to $60 million. That was the point being made. Shuttle was way more expensive.
      • They have the drawings, but that doesn't mean that they have all of the processes -- these are complex items operating at the edges of materials science. The Russians are still more advanced than the US in many metallurgical sciences. There are some alloys and specific metal grain configurations used in the RD-180 that simply no one else knows how to do but the Russian shops that build the RD-180 engine, which are under this embargo.

        Cue the talk about when we were looking to resurrect some Saturn V eng
        • There are some alloys and specific metal grain configurations used in the RD-180 that simply no one else knows how to do but the Russian shops that build the RD-180 engine

          Actually, they're using metaphysically strong ceramics baked from the the bones of political dissenters.

    • ULA also has the Delta 4 rocket which uses U.S. designed / made rocket engines. Previously they were letting the 3 core Delta 4 handle the big launches and the single core Atlas 5 handle the smaller launches, but there is no reason they couldn't have bid with a single core Delta 4 if they wanted. Something smells politically fishy with this.

      Oh, it smells politically fishy now, but oddly enough it didn't back when we were signing contracts with our largest cold war enemy to help drive our space program?

      Oh yeah, that makes a hell of a lot of sense...

  • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) <mojo@world3.LAPLACEnet minus math_god> on Wednesday November 18, 2015 @08:54AM (#50954191) Homepage

    Japan has started launching QZSS satellites that improve GPS accuracy to centimetre level, the first one being Michibiki. They have demonstrated navigation systems that can tell what lane you are driving in and when you are drifting out of it, or keep a snow plough on track at the side of a road with extreme precision.

    I wish some of the competing GNSS would support that kind of accuracy. There are lots of interesting applications.

    • QNSS is an augmetation system that relies on the existing Navstar/GPS infrastructure.

      I wish some of the competing GNSS would support that kind of accuracy. There are lots of interesting applications.

      None do - or all do. There are multiple regional SBAS [wikipedia.org] systems in operation already:

      WAAS, North America
      EGNOS, Europe
      StarFire (special end-point processing + SBAS data), worldwide

      More are under construction or proposed, but still all depend on a GNSS
      (or something close to it, India's IRNSS e.g. isn't global, but will do) for
      their baseline position.

  • ...so I don't really understand this.

    No, wait, I do.

    This is ULA saying, essentially, "You give us the Russian-sourced RD-180s because they're cheaper and less of a hassle for us, or we're taking our ball and going home."

    http://aviationweek.com/awin/u... [aviationweek.com]

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2015 @09:34AM (#50954309)

    The Atlas, you know, THE Atlas, the rocket that carries the name of the rocket that got the first US satellites into orbit and that got the first US astronaut into orbit, that very rocket that bears a rather ... let's say symbolic name, that damn rocket is in its current iteration powered by RUSSIAN engines?

    Are you fucking kidding me?

    Please don't tell me that's true for the ICBMs too. Depending on the international diplomatic situation it MIGHT get a wee bit tricky to get spare parts should the US actually feel the urge to use them...

    • by Anonymous Coward

      When you need to use them is not the time you need spare parts for ICBM's.

    • by gmack ( 197796 )

      Worse than that.. the northern arctic radar system designed to warn us of incoming ICBMs uses vacuum tubes (or at least it did 10 years ago when my uncle worked there) sourced from Russia.

    • Actually it is good. Makes a war less likely.

      • Only if the Russian war infrastructure is similarly dependent on American-made components. Otherwise you have a situation where one side has a distinct strategic advantage, which can make war *more* likely.

    • The current US ICBM (Minuteman III) is an entirely different model of rocket. For one, it's a solid-fuel rocket, rather than liquid, so it's an entirely different beast.
    • The US land-based nuclear deterrent force is made up of the Minuteman-III, which is a solid-fuel based booster. No Russian parts to be seen there.

      And there's also the sea-based Trident SLBM, which is arguably the bigger deterrent. Everyone knows where the Minuteman-III missiles are. Only people aboard the submarines, and the upper brass in the Navy know where the Ohio-class SSBNs are.

      • Only people aboard the submarines, and the upper brass in the Navy know where the Ohio-class SSBNs are.

        Many years ago, I was on one of the boomers.

        The upper brass knows not much more than which ocean the boomer is when it's at sea.

        The Captain and Navigator (and the Nav's CPO) know where the boat is. The rest of us generally knew which ocean we were in....

      • by slew ( 2918 )

        And there's also the sea-based Trident SLBM, which is arguably the bigger deterrent. Everyone knows where the Minuteman-III missiles are. Only people aboard the submarines, and the upper brass in the Navy know where the Ohio-class SSBNs are.

        FWIW, advances in submarine detection technology have gotten to the point that many feel that submarines will eventually become the "battle-ship" under the sea (e.g., obsolete). Although today, stationary passive sonar nets only listen for submarines near coasts and "chokepoints" that subs traverse, improved information and processing power will eventually allow passive sonar in the open ocean and even optical illumination detection using drones equipped with high-powered laser-leds. When that become prac

        • by RevDisk ( 740008 )
          I sincerely doubt anyone will trust a drone with nuclear weapons launch capacity. I certainly would not.

          Granted, it's not my area of study, but I sincerely doubt subs are completely obsolete. The oceans don't have sonar nets everywhere, and it's not practical to lace the every ocean with them. Drones have even less coverage/duration. As you said, they're generally at chokepoints. And the US has plenty of ocean access without said chokepoints. I sincerely doubt they will become obsolete anytime within the
  • by ramriot ( 1354111 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2015 @09:54AM (#50954423)

    Interesting that,especially when you realise it was SpaceX's lobbying that got the existing ban enforced in the first place.

    • Re:Bravo SpaceX (Score:5, Informative)

      by Fire_Wraith ( 1460385 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2015 @10:14AM (#50954527)
      It's hard to blame SpaceX for lobbying on that, as ULA was lobbying to keep them out of the process. Unfortunately, if you want to play the game in DC, at least at any significant level, you need to be involved in lobbying, even if only to counter the people who are lobbying against you.
      • Re:Bravo SpaceX (Score:4, Informative)

        by khallow ( 566160 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2015 @11:26AM (#50955009)
        US aerospace is notorious for using regulation and bureaucracy to obstruct space activities. I have heard, for example, that one of the last Atlas II (operated by Lockheed Martin (LM)) launches in 2004 had been delayed for a few days by a bogus concern about battery issues. Apparently, the same company then proceeded to interfere with two Atlas III launches by expressing recycled concerns about the RD-180 rocket engines used on that rocket.

        SpaceX has also had some of their earliest launches delayed [space.com] due to games played by LM (story discusses a SpaceX Vandenberg launch first getting delayed in turn by a delay in a Titan IV launch operated by LM and then being kicked out of their launch facilities because LM was occupying a nearby launch facility).
    • So, a company pushes to enforce a ban that is in America's interest and that is bad.
      Otoh, ULA fought against spacex using existing launch sites at Vandenberg or kennedy, which lead to their first being at Marshall ( very expensive ); fought a second time against spacex getting a site at Vandenberg and Kennedy, but lost; fought to force the DOD to give them a massive launch contracts before spacex, or BO, were in place to bid; fought against Kennedy offering up a launch site for private use, esp spacex; p

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