A new era of orbital launches may be spearheaded by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s project which was just certified to bid for military launches. The recent developments in the arena point towards SpaceX surpassing the United Launch Alliance.
Last Wednesday’s Congressional hearing reignited the idea that the Russian RD-180 engines should be banned. While this may mirror several interests underlined by the lessening dependence on the Russian Federation, it may bring bad news for United Launch Alliance.
Boeing and Lockheed Martin, partners under the ULA umbrella depend on the Russian RD-180 engines to power Atlas V rockets. This is arguably the best price-quality option on the market, validated by the numerous orbital launches performed until now. The main problem consists of the fact that it was also the only option on the market.
The RD-180 engines have powered a love-hate relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation. While United Launch Alliance depends on one of these engines for each Atlas V rocket deployed into orbit, the Russian Federation welcomes the paycheck to further invest in its own space program.
This might come to a permanent end soon. Following the Russian Federation’s invasion of Crimea, Ukraine in 2014, the U.S. Congress banned the purchase and use of RD-180 engines. At the time, the emphasis fell on reducing the United States’ dependency on the Russian Federation where military assets were concerned. After a temporary lift of the ban, this Wednesday’s Congressional hearing argued for its reinstatement.
While the U.S. Congress disapproves of funds being funneled in Russian technology, the U.S. Air Force needs reliable access to orbit. Moreover, the U.S. Air Force discussed ending the 800 million dollars per year contract with the United Launch Alliance. Against this background, SpaceX emerges as the new player in the arena. A new era in orbital launches may be spearheaded by SpaceX.
With the current certification to compete for the military launches, SpaceX is taking significant steps in the right direction. SpaceX is the only competitor to United Launch Alliance despite the significant difference in experience. However, it may be that with ULA left without the possibility to launch Atlas V rockets until it develops new technology, SpaceX becomes the only player in the arena for a while.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is now deemed eligible by the U.S. Air Force. According to Lt.Gen. Samuel Greaves:
“This gives the Air Force confidence that the national security satellites will safely achieve the intended orbits with full mission capability”.
SpaceX is already part of the game with the Global Positioning System 3 bid in Elon Musk’s pocket. The mission could take off in 2018. SpaceX rapid ascension under the right circumstances could signal the herald of a new orbital launches era.
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