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Atlas 5 thunders to milestone in U.S. rocket history

Posted: June 20, 2012

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Marking a milestone in flight at the fore of American rocketry, an Atlas 5 majestically rose away from Cape Canaveral this morning on the 50th mission for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

This morning's Atlas 5 blasts off. Credit: Pat Corkery/ULA
Topped with a clandestine cargo for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, the United Launch Alliance rocket lifted off at 8:28 a.m. EDT (1228 GMT) and headed eastward before entering a news blackout to perform its orbit-shaping and satellite deployment in secrecy.

An hour later, official press releases from ULA and the NRO proclaimed that the ascent had gone well, keeping the EELV score card at 100 percent successful in the eyes of the boss -- the U.S. Air Force.

"This morning's flawless launch is the product of many months of hard work and collaboration of government and industry teams. We hit it out of the park again as we continue to deliver superior vigilance from above for the nation," said Col. James D. Fisher, director of NRO's Office of Space Launch.

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, with 11 launches planned just this year.

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.

"EELV is arguably the most successful space program in U.S. history," said Michael Gass, ULA's chief executive officer.

At the outset, the Air Force's requirements for the new EELV program specified mass-to-orbit capabilities, vehicle design reliability, launch pad infrastructure and standard payload interfaces with the vehicles.

In addition, the Pentagon wanted the new rockets to reduce costs by at least 25 percent over the heritage boosters, with a goal of 50 percent.

"The U.S. Air Force has met all EELV requirements with both EELV systems (Atlas and Delta) while only paying about $1 billion of the total $6 billion development cost. It delivered both systems on time and on budget, and, as currently estimated, is delivering 33 percent savings over the heritage systems it replaced," Gass said.

An artist's concept of the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rocket families. Credit: ULA
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. Last year alone, the satellites put up aboard 11 ULA rockets amounted to $6 billion.

Lockheed Martin and Boeing retained their rights to sell the rockets to commercial customers, although national security and science missions account for nearly all of the available launch slots on both families.

Beyond Flight 50

Cutting costs, purchasing rockets more efficiently and speeding up the time between launches are key activities underway for the maturing EELV systems, having flown 50 missions over the past 10 years.

The Air Force will soon begin studying pricing plans based on how many ULA-made boosters it wishes to purchase each year, a strategy to buy in bulk that would stabilize the production arena by establishing the number of EELVs to build.

"Customer commitment to a stable rate and quantity lowers risk and allows the contractor to leverage economical order-quantities to lower prices," said Gass.

"We are working closely with the Air Force to maximize the buying power of the U.S. government given the best understanding of the manifest requirements over the next several years to reduce the cost of launch."

The Air Force believes the national security launch manifest needs between six and 10 rockets per year over the next three to five years, and ULA is finishing its pricing proposal for submission later this year, Gass said.

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 near-term prices to rise given the unknown future.

"That uncertainty equates to risk, which gets reflected in supplier bids. Based on that fact, the projected budgets assume little or no additional business on which to spread the costs. This increases EELV program costs," said Gass.

An Atlas 5 first stage. Credit: NASA
As for SpaceX, born in the mind of billionaire Elon Musk, the company recently completed its demonstration flights with NASA seed money to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, and now has its sights set on capturing a chunk of the EELV market too.

The Air Force has laid out its stringent requirements for all new entrants into the national security launch business, putting reliability at the top.

"ULA possess unparalleled experience built on a legacy of 1,300 launches during the past five decades and the scar tissue that goes with it," said Gass, referring to the history of the Atlas and Delta lineage that dates to the dawn of the space age.

"Competition works if is there is sufficient market demand to sustain multiple suppliers. In the absence of sufficient market demand, competition for competition-sake will only drive up costs. Forced competition in the absence of adequate market may jeopardize reliability, endanger our national security and drive up total cost to the U.S. government," he continued.

"The original Moorman study that created the EELV program envisioned only one system to support national security missions economically. We formed ULA because the market and the needs of our national security customers could not justify two complete and competing infrastructures -- hence the consolidation. Our customers will assess how to deliver best value to support their mission of extracting the critical capabilities that are achieved after a successful launch."

To make the turnaround times quicker between launches, EELV engineers are reducing the time it takes to build the massive rockets and shrinking the launch site schedules. The Atlas 5 that blasted off today, for example, was the first to skip performing the customary "wet dress rehearsal" that served as a fueling exercise and countdown simulation, removing eight days from the pre-launch campaign.

How it all began

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.

One of the early Delta 4 rockets is launched with an Air Force payload. Credit: Carleton Bailie/Boeing
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.

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.

An Atlas 5-551 vehicle. Credit: NASA
"Twelve of the 50 EELV launches have been NRO missions and these have been vital to our overall mission of delivering on commitments critical to our national security," said Bruce Carlson, director of the NRO. "I thank and congratulate ULA and the EELV program for the tremendous performance and achievement of this very impressive and noteworthy milestone."

Along the way to flight number 50, NASA migrated a number of its spacecraft to EELV as well, using the Atlas 5 for dispatching the sharpest-eyed orbiter and the car-sized Mars Science Laboratory rover to the Red Planet, the Juno probe to Jupiter, New Horizons that is en route to make the first encounter with Pluto, plus a sophisticated craft to study the Sun and missions to the Moon.

And there has been civilian weather observatories too, the kind of satellite that provides the looping imagery of clouds seen on every newscast, that went up on a three-peat success string aboard the Delta 4.

To date, the combined record for both EELV systems includes 19 launches dedicated to the Defense Department, 13 commercial flights, 12 missions with spy satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office and six for NASA.

"Since the first EELV launch nearly 10 years ago, EELV has delivered billions of dollars of critical capabilities to space that protect our national security, promote our quest to explore and understand the universe and promote commerce. EELV has accomplished all this while achieving an unprecedented level of mission success with no mission failures," said Gass.

After early flights went only from Cape Canaveral in Florida, both rockets eventually took up residence at a second launch site -- Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. While the Cape affords access to equatorial orbits, the West Coast base features the prominent path to polar orbits where some types of reconnaissance satellites like to go.

Atlas 5 has done 27 East Coast flights and four West Coast missions. The Delta 4 has flown 15 times from the Cape and four times from Vandenberg.

As seen from an off-shore oil platform, the Delta 4-Heavy rocket ascends from Vandenberg. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo provided courtesy of the 30th Communications Squadron Optics section
EELV has dozens of future launches on the books and should hit flight number 100 in just a few years. The manifest calls for 11 flights this year, including 7 Atlases and 4 Deltas. Next year includes a dozen flights with 8 Atlases and 4 Deltas. Calendar year 2014 is similar with 12 EELV launches for 9 Atlases and 3 Deltas.

"Beyond that we see a sustained rate of about 12 EELV launches a year thru 2017," Gass said.

"ULA currently has no plan to downselect to a single launch system, either Atlas 5 or Delta 4. We respond to our customer requirements and as currently projected both systems support our customer needs," he added.

The outlook also could include launching humans instead of only hardware into space. Several of the prospective commercial providers for ferrying NASA astronauts to the International Space Station through new spacecraft designs, including Boeing's CST-100 capsule, Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser spaceplane and Bue Origin's biconic spacecraft have selected Atlas 5 as their launcher of choice.

"We continue to work with our commercial crew prime contractors to optimize the system solution for human rating. Most notable efforts for ULA are emergency detection system to trigger an abort if there is launch vehicle anomaly, crew ingress/egress facilities at launch site and reinstating the dual engine upper stage (flown in all pre-EELV Atlas and Titan Centaur versions) to improve flight trajectory safety capabilities," Gass said.

Elsewhere on the horizon, a common upper stage engine to fly on both the Atlas 5 and the Delta 4, known as Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne's RL10C, is under development for debut in 2015. The new, more powerful RS-68A main engine for Delta 4 will make its maiden mission next week on a Heavy and should be phased into all Delta 4s in 2015. Common avionics across the EELVs is in work, too.

All of the projects are intended to cut costs, make operations more efficient and keep delivering success after success for the customers buying rides on America's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

Spaceflight Now has been around for all 50 EELV launches. Check out the special archive listing links to the past coverage.

About the author

Justin Ray has been editor of Spaceflight Now since its inception in November 1999. The online website, based at Cape Canaveral, has documented U.S. and international space news with a specialty of live launch coverage.

Prior to that, Justin worked for two years as an aerospace reporter at the Florida Today newspaper and its pioneering Space Online website. He began his career as an intern at Patrick Air Force Base's public affairs office in 1996 and wrote for the Missileer base newspaper.

The Ohio native has covered more than 115 Delta rocket launches, 85 Atlas flights, 65 space shuttle missions and construction of the International Space Station, plus scientific spacecraft such as the Mars rovers and Cassini.

He attended college at the University of Central Florida and now resides in Viera, Florida.