Main Engine Cut Off

Air Force Awards EELV Phase-1A-6 Contracts

Big news from the Air Force, with 3 launch contracts going to each provider for the 2021–22 timeframe:

United Launch Services, Centennial, Colorado, has been awarded a $441,761,778 firm-fixed-price contract, for launch services to deliver the SILENTBARKER, SBIRS GEO-5, and SBIRS GEO-6 missions to their intended orbits.  This launch service contract will include launch vehicle production, mission integration, mission launch operations/spaceflight worthiness, and mission unique activities for SILENTBARKER and SBIRS GEO-5, with an option for an additional SBIRS GEO-6 launch service. … Fiscal 2018 and 2019 space procurement funds in the amount of $308,550,970 will be obligated at the time of award.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Hawthorne, California, has been awarded a $297,000,000 firm-fixed-price contract, for launch services to deliver the NROL-87, NROL-85, and AFSPC-44 missions to their intended orbits.

First some thoughts on the price assumptions we can make, before I dive into some general thoughts.


For ULA, the SBIRS GEO-5 and -6 flights are likely on Atlas V 411. The first three SBIRS GEO launches were on 401, but the Air Force took the option of using a 411 last year for improved performance, and I expect the same here.

Given that the GEO-6 contract is an option, the funds are not obligated yet, so we can do some math with the numbers given and determine that an Atlas V 411 flight for the Air Force is $133 million. SILENTBARKER is likely on an Atlas V 541 (or even 551) and is the remaining $175 million.

On the SpaceX side, the best bet we can make is that AFSPC-44 is a Falcon Heavy flight, and the two NRO missions are on Falcon 9. Strangely enough, in SpaceX’s statement on the awards, they didn’t list AFSPC-44 in the Falcon Heavy manifest, but I’m assuming that was a case of a bad cut-and-paste job of boilerplate copy that hadn’t been updated yet, since Falcon 9 would likely not be able to fly that mission.

All that said, based on recent Falcon 9 government contracts, we can assume about $90 million per flight, which leaves the Falcon Heavy flight at about $117 million.

General Thoughts

Overall, this round wasn’t too surprising, and that has to be music to SpaceX’s ears.

On the ULA side, Atlas V has flown 4 SBIRS GEO missions already, so going that way for -5 and -6 is not surprising and is a good idea.

On the SpaceX side, the fact that they can lock up two NRO flights and a direct-to-GEO Air Force flight with a good price margin between themselves and ULA is a great sign for their future manifest. The fact that Falcon Heavy has a growing manifest and nearly half of it is filled with Air Force missions is major validation. The fact that there is little outrage when they’re awarded missions like these speaks volumes to their track record of late.

Much as we all think of SpaceX as a scrappy startup, they’re an established launch provider now, and are heading into the phase where they play defense against new entrants.

Space Policy Directive-4

President Trump signed the directive that asks the Pentagon to send him a proposal that he can send to Congress, so Space Force is far from a done deal, but the administration went with the option much more likely to pass: a Space Force under the Air Force.

The legislative proposal required by section 3 of this memorandum shall create a civilian Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space, to be known as the Under Secretary for Space, appointed by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.

This is the most disappointing part for me. I’m a Space Force Inevitablist, and the top priority in my eyes is elevating space leadership up and outside of the Air Force constraints.

Having the head of Space Force still reporting through the Air Force structure will still be a major pain point for national security space and will continue to hold it back in many ways.

But, this is what has a shot at passing, so for now, we wait.

NASA Looking to Buy Two More Soyuz Seats, Even Though They Always Say It’s Too Late to Do That

Chris Bergin, for NASASpaceflight:

“NASA is considering contracting with the State Space Corporation “Roscosmos” for these services on a sole source basis for two (2) Soyuz seats and associated services to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft vehicle. This transportation would be for one crewmember in the Fall of 2019 and one crewmember in the Spring of 2020.”

The two seats in Fall 2019 and Spring 2020 seem to be in reference to the Soyuz MS-15 and MS-16 flights.  Soyuz MS-15 currently has its third seat occupied by a paying spaceflight participant – who will now likely be bumped to accommodate a permanent US Station crewmember – and Soyuz MS-16 is a schedule two-person flight with a vacant third seat available.

This is obviously a bad look for NASA, Boeing, SpaceX, and Congress, but it’s smart to have Soyuz overlap with the early Commercial Crew flights, just in case.

However, let’s not forget the constant fearmongering from Bill Gerstenmaier and other NASA officials about how it’s too late to buy more Soyuz seats. It comes up every time they are in front of Congress (like January 2018 in the House), or are in similarly-high-stakes situations (like August 2018 right before crew assignments).

They say it takes 3 years to build a Soyuz so it’s too late to get on the list. Marcia Smith has a great note on this from that August incident:

An obvious answer to the question of how to ensure uninterrupted U.S. crew access to ISS is to buy more Soyuz seats from Russia. NASA officials insist, however, that it is too late to negotiate a new contract because it takes three years to build a Soyuz.

However, Russia will still be building Soyuz spacecraft for its own ISS crew members. Each Soyuz can accommodate three people. A Russian commander occupies one seat and another Russian cosmonaut is usually in the second, leaving the third seat open. Sometimes Russia uses the third seat for another of its own cosmonauts, but before NASA began purchasing the seats Russia also used them for tourists who reportedly paid about $25 million to spend a week on ISS. Russia is already making a seat available to others now that the contract with NASA is expiring. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will fly its first astronaut to ISS on a Soyuz in April 2019.

It’s an out-and-out, bold-faced, horseshit lie. No one should ever be fooled by these politically-minded statements ever again, and no one should report on Soyuz seat purchases without mentioning that.

Air Force Research Lab Small Sat Hitching a Ride to GEO

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

Spaceflight, the Seattle-based company that brokers rideshare launch services, confirmed in a Feb. 11 statement that it will be flying the S5 satellite for the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) as a secondary payload on the Falcon 9 launch of the PSN-6, or Nusantara Satu, communications satellite built by Space Systems Loral, a division of Maxar Technologies, for Indonesian company PT Pasifik Satelit Nusantara.

The S5 satellite will be attached not to the rocket’s upper stage or payload adapter but instead to the Nusantara Satu satellite itself, Spaceflight explained in its statement. “Before the telecommunications satellite reaches its final GEO position, it will separate the S5 spacecraft which will then turn on and start its mission,” Spaceflight said.

This is a pretty unique situation—a satellite for the Air Force Research Lab riding on a commercial Indonesian satellite all the way to (near) geostationary orbit.

SpaceX Protests Lucy Launch Contract

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

The protest, filed with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) Feb. 11, is regarding a NASA procurement formally known as RLSP-35. That contract is for the launch of the Lucy mission to the Trojan asteroids of Jupiter, awarded by NASA to ULA Jan. 31 at a total cost to the agency of $148.3 million.

The GAO documents did not disclose additional information about the protest, other than the office has until May 22 to render a decision. NASA said that, as a result of the protest, it’s halted work on the ULA contract.

It’ll be endlessly interesting to see how this turns out, but now is precisely the right time for SpaceX to protest an award like this. They’re fresh off their Category 3 certification from the NASA Launch Services Program, they’re on a hell of a roll, and ULA has had quite a few scrubs and some long delays of late.

T+110: Starship, New Glenn, and RS1 Updates

ABL Space Systems announced some changes to RS1, Blue Origin broke ground in Huntsville and signed a new customer, and SpaceX has been making steady progress on Starship.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 35 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, and six anonymous—and 218 other supporters on Patreon.

California Space Mafia Needles the Air Force

Sandra Erwin, for SpaceNews:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) are calling for an independent review of the Air Force’s space launch procurement strategy. They contend that the Air Force, in an effort to broaden the launch playing field, is putting SpaceX at a competitive disadvantage.

In a Feb. 4 letter addressed to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Feinstein and Calvert — both with strong ties to the space industry — argue that the path the Air Force has chosen to select future launch providers creates an unfair playing field. Although SpaceX is not mentioned in the letter by name, it is clear from the lawmakers’ language that they believe the company is getting a raw deal because, unlike its major competitors, it did not receive Air Force funding to modify its commercial rockets so they meet national security mission requirements.

This shit is as annoying as when the Alabama Space Mafia does the same sort of thing.

Moments like these reinforce the natural way of things: one day SpaceX will be the entrenched player angling to keep the new entrants out.

And it’s not Vulcan or Omega that SpaceX is worried about.

Thanks to January Patrons

Very special thanks to the 256 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of January. MECO is entirely listener- and reader-supported, so your support keeps this blog and podcast going, growing, and improving, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

And a huge thanks to the 35 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, and six anonymous executive producers. I could not do this without your support, and I am extremely grateful for it.

There are some great perks for those supporting on Patreon, too. At $3 a month, you get access to the MECO Headlines podcast feed—every Friday, I run through the headlines of the week and discuss the stories that didn’t make it into the main show. And at $5 a month, you’ll get advance notice of guest appearances with the ability to contribute questions and topics to the show, and you get access to the Off-Nominal Discord—a place to hang out and discuss all things space.

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T+109: Q&A

We cover a lot of ground in this round of questions, nearly all focused on the future—ISS crew scheduling, ISS facilities, ISRO human spaceflight, science missions, and launch vehicles.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 35 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, and six anonymous—and 221 other supporters on Patreon.