Payload stacked for NROL-44; ULA, SpaceX win NSSL awards

by Joseph Navin & Mihir Neal

United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) Delta IV Heavy rocket has received its clandestine payload for the upcoming NROL-44 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office as teams continue launch preparations on SLC-37B at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.

The mission is set to launch at the end of August and comes as ULA wins 60% of the National Security Space Launch award from the U.S. Space Force with SpaceX winning the remaining 40% of the missions.

NROL-44 progress:

The first Delta IV Heavy mission from Florida since August 2018 is in the final stages of preparation for launch, with ULA and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) personnel transferring and mating the classified NROL-44 payload on top of the heavy-lift rocket — the final integration activity prior to launch.

The Delta IV Heavy is the only remaining Delta family rocket variant currently in active status for ULA following the retirement of the Delta II line in 2018 and the Delta IV Medium line in August 2019.

Launch site preparations for the mission began in earnest in July 2019 when the two side boosters arrived at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard the Delta Mariner (now named Rocketship). 

Over the rest of 2019, the remaining flight hardware arrived at the Cape and was moved to the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) at SLC-37.

SLC-37B and -37A were built between 1959 and 1963 for NASA’s Apollo Program.  LC-37A was never used, but LC-37B launched Saturn I and Saturn 1B rockets including Apollo 5 — the first in-space test of the lunar module.  SLC-37B was deactivated in 1972 before being rebuilt for the Delta IV line in the early 2000s.

After assembly in the HIF, the triple-core Delta IV Heavy complete with its Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS) was rolled out to the pad on 14 November 2019 where it was then hydraulically lifted from horizontal to vertical on the launch mount the following day, completing the Launch Vehicle On Stand milestone.

The Delta IV line requires quite a bit of time on the pad for launch processing operations compared to other rockets, and multi-month pad flows are usual for this vehicle.

ULA completed a Wet Dress Rehearsal on 10 January 2020 to verify all vehicle and ground systems were working in both ambient and cryogenic conditions.  The Wet Dress saw ULA teams perform the standard countdown as will be used on launch day, complete with fueling of the vehicle with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

The only element of launch day not practiced in reality but rather simulated was ignition of the three RS-68A engines — one on each Common Booster Core.

On 27 July, the classified NRO payload arrived at the pad and was picked up via a crane through the hoistway inside the rocket’s Mobile Service Tower and successfully integrated to the top of the DCSS.

Launch of NROL-44 is currently scheduled for early morning on 26 August, with a launch window of 1:50 to 6:25 am EDT (05:50 to 10:25 UTC).

A Delta IV Heavy nears side core shutdown and separation. (Credit: Mack Crawford for NSF/L2)

The Delta IV Heavy is built in Decatur, AL, like the Atlas V and Vulcan, ULA’s two other rockets.

Vulcan will serve as the Delta IV’s replacement but will begin flying as the Delta IV fleet is phased out over the next four years.  Only five Delta IV Heavy missions remain — three from Cape Canaveral and two from Vandenberg Air Force Base.  All are NRO missions.

The final Delta IV mission is NROL-70, scheduled for a 2024 launch from Cape Canaveral.

Vulcan, in its Heavy configuration (with six solid rocket motors and a stretched Centaur upper stage) will have 20-30% greater payload capacity than the Delta IV Heavy and will be far cheaper.

ULA confirms that a Delta IV Heavy costs about $350 million whereas Vulcan Centaur — of of 2015 — was targeting a $100 million per launch cost with the vehicle’s heavy-lift variant understood to have debut cost of $200 million per launch.

In response to a NASASpaceflight inquiry, ULA said that “due to competition sensitive information, … no update [is] available on Vulcan Centaur pricing ” as per the costs listed above.

ULA wins bulk of new NSSL Phase 2 award:

The NROL-44 mission now coincidentally comes right as ULA celebrates a major victory.

The U.S. Space Force has awarded the company approximately 60% of its National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 contract awards, a Firm-Fixed-Price, Indefinite Delivery Requirement contract for launches beginning in 2022.

For the missions under this award, ULA will use their upcoming Vulcan rocket as the company seeks to phase out its Delta IV and eventually its Atlas V rocket lines — the latter of which will comply with Congressional orders to move away from use of the veteran, reliable, and workhorse Russian-made RD-180 engine.

SpaceX will use their Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, both of which are already certified for national security launches.

“This is a groundbreaking day, culminating years of strategic planning and effort by the Department of the Air Force, NRO and our launch service industry partners,” said Dr. William Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.”

“Maintaining a competitive launch market, servicing both government and commercial customers, is how we encourage continued innovation on assured access to space.  Today’s awards mark a new epoch of space launch that will finally transition the Department off Russian RD-180 engines.”

Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of Space and Missile System Center, and program executive officer for Space added, “This landmark award begins the dawn of a new decade in U.S. launch innovation, while promoting competition, maintaining a healthy industrial base, and reinforcing our global competitive advantage.”

Announcement of the Phase 2 NSSL awards came with the assignment of three launches slated for 2022. 

Falcon Heavy — with its larger, stretched fairing — prepares for an NSSL mission. The new mobile stacking building is seen near the rocket. (Credit: Mack Crawford for NSF/L2)

ULA will cater to two of those, USSF-51 and USSF-106, expected to be launched in the second and fourth quarters of the year, respectively. 

The third flight, USSF-67, was assigned to SpaceX and is slated to launch in the fourth quarter of 2022. 

For its two missions, ULA will receive $337 million.  SpaceX will receive $316 million for its mission — part of which will go toward development and build costs of the new stretched and larger payload fairing for the Falcon Heavy as well as a mobile stacking structure to facilitate the NSSL mandate that payloads be integrated vertically and not horizontally.

SpaceX’s current payload fairings are 5.2 m in diameter and 13.1 m tall.  The larger NSSL fairings for Falcon Heavy are expected to be about 5.4 m in diameter and 18.6 m tall.

Once developed, the larger fairings can be use for non-NSSL missions of the Falcon Heavy as well.

In 2018, Phase 1 of the current round of selections included funding for development of detailed designs of the rockets proposed from Northrop Grumman (OmegA), Blue Origin (New Glenn), and ULA (Vulcan).   SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets had already completed development and were already flying.

Phase 2 then formally selected two companies (three vehicles) to fly the 2022-2027 manifest of military missions in a 60/40 split.

While not receiving an NSSL contract, OmegA does have an announced customer in Saturn Satellite Networks for the launch of two satellites into Geostationary Transfer Orbit on the rocket’s maiden voyage next year.

What effect not winning one of the NSSL contracts will have on this mission is not clear at present.

In a statement, Northrop Grumman said, “We are disappointed by this decision.  We are confident we submitted a strong proposal that reflected our extensive space launch experience and provided value to our customer, and we are looking forward to our debriefing from the customer.”

Likewise, Bob Smith, CEO of Blue Origin stated, “We are disappointed in the decision that New Glenn was not selected for the NSSL Phase 2 Launch Services Procurement.  We submitted an incredibly compelling offer for the national security community and the U.S. taxpayer.  Blue Origin’s offer was based on New Glenn’s heavy-lift performance, unprecedented private investment of more than $2.5 billion, and a very competitive single basic launch service price for any mission across the entire ordering period.”

“We are proceeding with New Glenn development to fulfill our current commercial contracts, pursue a large and growing commercial market, and enter into new civil space launch contracts.  We remain confident New Glenn will play a critical role for the national security community in the future due to the increasing realization that space is a contested domain and a robust, responsive, and resilient launch capability is ever more vital to U.S. security.”

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