Saturday, September 4, 2021

ULA Stops Selling Atlas Launches

A bit low on the story priority list since it's not exactly unexpected, but The Verge reports ULA has stopped selling Atlas V launches.  

The Atlas is a storied launch vehicle with a history that goes back to the dawn of rockets in national defense.  The Atlas SM65 was an early Intercontinental Ballistic Missile; the first launch was on December 17, 1957.  The first American to reach orbit, John Glenn, rode a Mercury Atlas; an Atlas LV-3B topped by his Mercury capsule, Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962.  The first prototype communications satellite, called SCORE - for Signal Communication by Orbiting Relay Equipment - was launched well before Glenn, December 18, 1958.  With 64 years of history, this is barely scratching the surface. 

The emphasis of the Verge article is the current iteration of the vehicle, the Atlas V, first launched in 2002.  Powered by two Russian RD-180 engines as the main booster engines, and sometimes carrying strap-on solid rocket boosters, enough flights are booked to carry the vehicle into the "mid-'20s" although ULA says every RD-180 they'll ever need has been delivered.  Which they'd better have considering there's no other option for that engine.

“We’re done. They’re all sold,” CEO Tory Bruno said of ULA’s Atlas V rockets in an interview. ULA, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has 29 Atlas V missions left before it retires sometime in the mid-2020s and transitions to its upcoming Vulcan rocket, Bruno said. The remaining Atlas V missions include a mix of undisclosed commercial customers and some for the Space Force, NASA, and Amazon’s budding broadband satellite constellation, Project Kuiper.

The planned replacement for the Atlas V is the Vulcan Centaur, which is dependent on BE-4 engines from Blue Origin.  Those have been a stumbling block.  Blue Origin's last update was that they expect to deliver flight ready engines for Vulcan by the end of the year;  I've also read Tory Bruno has considered legal action against Blue because of the last few years.  

First launched in 2002, the expendable Atlas V launcher was the centerpiece vehicle that helped cement ULA’s near-monopoly on national security satellite missions and some of NASA’s biggest space exploration initiatives, including all of the agency’s robotic missions to Mars. But when the US sanctioned Russia over its annexation of Crimea in 2014, Congress directed the Air Force to end its reliance on Atlas V because of its Russian-made RD-180 engines. Current law requires the Space Force (which manages much of the launch-related duties that used to be under the Air Force) to stop using Atlas V for Pentagon launches by 2022.  [BOLD added: SiG] 

Atlas V has another problem, which I'm sure many of you have thought about: competition from SpaceX's Falcon 9.   

ULA has slashed the price for Atlas V missions from roughly $187 million to around $100 million as competition from SpaceX mounted, but it never closed in on Falcon 9’s launch price of roughly $62 million. Once a dominant force for national security launches, ULA now competes head to head with SpaceX for lucrative Pentagon launch contracts. Last year, Space Force awarded billions to ULA and SpaceX to launch 30 to 35 missions for the Pentagon between 2022 and 2027, with ULA getting 60 percent of the workload and SpaceX getting the rest.

With SpaceX charging 62% of ULA's cost, you might expect that ULA wouldn't win anything, but the Atlas V is more configurable for heavy payloads, while SpaceX has the Falcon Heavy upgrade path.  I find no information on those costs, but I wouldn't dimiss the possibility that Atlas V is a better choice for some payloads and/or mission profiles. 

From the launch of the Perseverance Mars Rover July 30, 2020, on an Atlas V in the 541 configuration (5 meter payload fairing, 4 solid rocket boosters, 1 RL-10 engine on the Centaur upper stage).  The first stage's two RD-180 engines are visible in the middle between the four solid rocket motors as the rocket propels NASA’s Perseverance Mars mission into space from SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.  Richard Angle photo. 




  1. Hmmmm....the link to the Vulcan Centaur page say they're using "Flight Proven Hardware".....uhhhh....where are my "Flight Proven" engines, then? Huh?

    1. The Aerojet Rocketdyne engines on the Centaur are flight ready, and have been used for decades.

      Still wondering if Aerojet will pop out a BE-4 replacement soon, or announce that they're building a workaround just in case.

    2. Still wondering if Aerojet will pop out a BE-4 replacement soon, or announce that they're building a workaround just in case.

      Sure seems like it would have been prudent to have put some money into that.

    3. I have thought that Lockheed's acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne was in response to the slowdown and slowrolling of the BE-4. It may be due to the wonderful engines used on the Centaur, but it is just curious timing that when development of BE-4 started to really slow down...

      I am sure that someone at A-R has at least sketched up or computer designed, using all their institutional knowledge of engine design, a more modern engine that uses methane. At least I hope so.

    4. SiGraybeard - they’re not prudent
      Beans - Nope. They haven’t.
      It’s aerojet-ROCKETDYNE now. Aerojet bought Rocketdyne - and virtually all the Aerojet engineers left when they closed down the Aerojet facility in Sacramento.
      Centaur uses RL-10 engine developed by Pratt-Whitney in late 50’s or early 60’s.

  2. Another reason why Atlas is preferred over Falcon is the Atlas supports a larger diameter fairing, thus a larger diameter payload.

    SpaceX tried to game the DOD and force the DOD to make smaller diameter payloads, and lost, so SpaceX is eating it in the costly design for a larger diameter fairing.

    The Angry Astronaut had an interesting video on this.

    And, yes, Bezos sucks, and so does Blue Origin.

  3. I think Atlas V only has one RD-180 engine. However, the RD-180 has two combustion chambers and nozzles.

    1. Ah, the eternal debate. Is it one engine or two. Some people say it's the number of combustion chambers, thus it's 2 engines fed by one pump. Some say it's the number of pumps, thus one engine with two combustion chambers.

      And why two combustion chambers? Is it that the Russians were too incompetent to design one huge chamber? Or too lame? Or was it to reduce the height of the engine unit? Or too crafty?

      As to the last, too crafty, remember on the sainted F-1 engine, that engine issues with detonations was a big problem, and all sorts of things were tried and engine baffling was the solution, all because of the size of the combustion chamber amplified issues that smaller engines could deal with, but scaled up could and would cause destructive failures in huge nozzles. So maybe splitting the combustion between two smaller (or 4 smaller chambers like on one of their engines) was a very smart way to get around detonation and heating issues.

      Dunno. Don't care. Not allowed on a US government flight as of 2022 anyways so it's a moot point, especially the way the current administration is going out of its way to provoke Russia.

    2. It's similar to the RD-171 we used on the Zenit-3SL. We had one set of pumps with four nozzles.

    3. Really nice photo of the Mars2020 (Perseverance) launch!

      The RD-180 is a single engine with two thrust chambers. Two thrust chambers allow roll control without vernier engines.

      At the time of the NSSL Phase II award, SpaceX lacked a large payload fairing and vertical integration capabilities.