America’s military depends heavily on satellites for things like secure communications and warning of missile attacks, but U.S. access to space is looking less and less assured. United Launch Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that has lofted into orbit all of the Pentagon’s satellites over the last ten years, is under pressure from Congress to stop using Russian engines on its workhorse Atlas V launch vehicle. Meanwhile, the Air Force has certified non-traditional launch provider SpaceX to compete against ULA despite a modest track record that includes a launch failure last June. These strains would by themselves be sufficient to raise doubts about ULA’s business outlook, but the company has compounded its risks by pursuing a previously untried approach to propulsion and a replacement of the Atlas vehicle at the same time. Fortunately, ULA has the backup option of embracing a less risky approach — a new engine developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne using mature kerosene-based propulsion technology that can fit into either the Atlas or a successor vehicle. The military’s future access to space may hinge on whether ULA turns to this solution so it can jettison Russian engines expeditiously. I have written a commentary for Forbes here.
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