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Atlas 5 launch
Both the Atlas 5 EELV (above) and the Delta 4 have been a technical success, but should such vehicles remain in operation for the next several decades? (credit: ILS)

EELV forever?

When the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off on Saturday, it marked the first US orbital launch since the previous shuttle mission, over two months ago. It’s been a quiet summer for the domestic launch industry, including the two vehicles once touted as the future workhorses for both government and commercial customers, the Atlas 5 and the Delta 4, collectively known as the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs). The two vehicles have made a combined total of four launches so far this year—two each—and are scheduled to make a couple more launches before the end of the year.

That’s hardly the launch rate that was anticipated a decade ago, when the government made key decisions about the next generation of expendable launchers, and that lack of activity is at the root of many of the key issues associated with the future of the EELV program. Overlooked in that debate, though, is the fact that the vehicles themselves have, by and large, been very successful in their actual missions of launching spacecraft, ranging from commercial communications satellites to the first mission to the ex-planet Pluto. These vehicles have been so successful that the chairman of a recent study on the nation’s launch programs concluded that they may be able to operate well past 2020—although whether that is a good thing is very much an open question.

Evaluating the EELV program

Tucked away inside the massive Defense Department authorization bill for fiscal year 2005 was a provision mandating the creation of a “Panel on the Future of National Security Space Launch”. Congress directed this panel to “conduct a review and assessment of the future national security space launch requirements of the United States, including the means of meeting those requirements,” according to the language of the bill.

“Our assessment was that the EELV family of space launch vehicles will satisfy the national space security launch requirements through 2020,” said panel chairman Forrest McCartney.

The panel’s final report, simply titled “National Security Space Launch Report”, was released by the RAND Corporation last month. The report surveys the launch needs of the Defense Department and the National Reconnaissance Office through the end of the next decade and what capabilities the nation will have to meet those needs. The panel also examined some ancillary issues, including the current interest by some in the Pentagon for the development of small, responsive launch vehicles.

The overarching conclusion of the panel was that, despite the well-publicized problems facing the EELV program, the vehicles themselves are quite capable of meeting the nation’s national security needs for the foreseeable future. “Our assessment was that the EELV family of space launch vehicles will satisfy the national space security launch requirements through 2020,” said panel chairman Forrest McCartney, a retired Air Force general and former Kennedy Space Center director, at an August 16th briefing where the report was formally released.

Those requirements, from an operational standpoint, are fairly modest: an average of roughly ten launches a year through 2013, then declining through the rest of the decade. (The decline, McCartney noted, is “not that significant”, and is largely an artifact of yet-to-be-announced programs that will require launches in the latter half of the 2010s; in addition, inevitable schedule delays will shift some of the pre-2013 launches further to the right.) Those launches, along with a modest number of commercial and NASA missions, are well within the capabilities of the EELV vehicles, which were developed in the 1990s to operate at much higher flight rates, based on the expectation that the commercial market would be a much bigger user of the vehicles.

The panel avoided taking a stand on perhaps the most contentious issue involving the EELV program: whether the Air Force should “downselect” to a single vehicle family to save money. Instead, the panel recommended that the Air Force collect as much data as possible about both vehicle families now before making a decision in 2010 or later, with an emphasis on vehicle reliability first and foremost, followed closely by cost. “Once you get reliability, you ought to know what the systems are going to cost,” said McCartney. “One system may cost you more to maintain than the other.” That assessment, though, requires seeing how both systems operate.

The argument against switching to a single vehicle family has been that it would compromise “assured access”, the mantra that has guided the EELV program for most of its history. McCartney, though, believes it’s possible to have assured access with only a single vehicle family. “We got along with one system for many years,” he said.

The panel tackled a number of secondary issues, recommending a careful analysis of the long-term need for a heavy variant of the EELV (all but one of the planned EELV Heavy launches after 2013 are for the TSAT communications satellite program, which is n such an early stage of development there’s no assurance that the spacecraft will actually need that massive a vehicle), whether the US should start domestic production of the Russian RD-180 engine used on the first stage of the Atlas 5, and studies of the RL10 upper-stage engine, variants of which are used by both EELVs.

Assured access, a cornerstone of the EELV program, doesn’t require two vehicles, McCartney claimed. “We got along with one system for many years.”

One issue the panel didn’t address was the United Launch Alliance (ULA), the proposed Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that would merge the two companies’ government EELV operations. The panel didn’t make a recommendation about ULA, McCartney explained, because they considered it a “fait accompli”, given that the joint venture was announced just as the panel started work in May 2005. “You’d either have it or wouldn’t have it by now,” he said. Instead, the ULA has been caught up in an extended government approval process involving the DoD and FTC and has yet to be approved. Regardless of how it turns out, McCartney believes the “situation is manageable” for the EELV program with or without ULA.

A long future?

Although the report was undecided on some of these key programmatic issues, McCartney and the panel made it clear where they stood on the technical capabilities of the EELV systems. “We’re in the best position we’ve ever been for space launch,” McCartney said. “We have two very demonstrated systems that are real workhorses. Either one, I think, would do the job in the out years.”

The panel was instructed by the Congressional language that established it to look no more than 15 years into the future—to 2020—but McCartney hinted that the EELVs were capable of performing well past that date. “Many of us believe that the EELV will be here a lot longer than 2020,” he said. How long? When talking about the need to collect cost and reliability data on the EELVs, he said that “if you’re talking about a 15 or 20—I think longer than that, maybe a 30- or 40-year time period—you ought to understand what those costs are.”

The panel also found that there was no need to develop new technologies to ensure that the EELV carry out its mission through at least 2020. “What we have now, with proper care and the normal type of upgrades and engineering enhancements, will take us through 2020,” McCartney said. However, he said the panel recommended that “someone” ought to look ahead to the post-2020 time period to see what the national security space needs were projected to be, and thus what technologies would be required to meet those needs.

This means, he said, that the EELVs that fly in 2020 should be as similar as possible to those launched this year. “My experience is that you have to be cautious when you have a working system and you start changing it,” he said. “You know that old adage, and I hate to use it, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Such statements speak well about the hard work that thousands of engineers put into both the Atlas 5 and the Delta 4. However, is it really such a good thing that either or both might be flying in substantially their current design towards the middle of the century? Or would it reflect an undesirable stagnation of the US launch industry?

If EELVs are flying 30 or 40 years from now, it suggests that efforts of companies like SpaceX to develop competing vehicles would have largely failed. SpaceX in particular is trying to develop an EELV-class vehicle, the Falcon 9, that would operate for a fraction of the price of the EELV; if the company succeeds, it’s hard to see the EELV continuing to operate for decades unless one of both vehicles achieves breakthrough cost reductions not currently foreseen.

However, if the EELV vehicles are still carrying out missions decades from now, it would be, at the very least, disappointing to those who seek a more vibrant future for the American space industry.

An extended future for the EELV would also do little to win it additional business outside of the DoD. NASA is only an occasional user of the EELV and, when faced with a choice during the formulation of its exploration strategy, elected to develop shuttle-derived rather than EELV-derived vehicles. The EELV has also failed to win much commercial business, and Boeing even withdrew the Delta 4 from the commercial market earlier this decade because of its inability to complete with less-expensive foreign alternatives. The Atlas 5’s commercial future is also uncertain after Lockheed Martin announced last week that it was selling its stake in International Launch Services, its joint venture with Russian company Khrunichev to sell Atlas and Proton launches, but retaining the right to commercially market the Atlas.

An extended future for the EELV could also have workforce implications for the aerospace industry in the US. With limited opportunities to work on new vehicles and new technologies, engineers might find better opportunities outside the two aerospace giants—or outside the aerospace field entirely.

The fact that either or both EELV family can meet the nation’s national security needs for decades to come does provide some reassurance that there will be no gap in the critical launch capabilities these vehicles provide. However, if these vehicles are still carrying out those missions decades from now, it would be, at the very least, disappointing to those who seek a more vibrant future for the American space industry.