Lockheed, the US government and the New space industry are surprising us all this year

Every now and then something comes out of the blue in this business but last week’s unveiling by Utah based ATK of its ALV two-stage solid fuel rocket was a good example of the increasing number of “unexpected events” we’re seeing this year.
It follows the US Congressional decision in September to provide an extra $23.4 million (spare change in Dod funding terms) for the US department of defence’s (Dod) operationally responsive space (ORS) efforts.
Although it is small beer for the Pentagon ATK certainly seem to think that it is an opportunity to leap frog those already funded for ORS and the ALV’s unveiling is a part of that process.
The US department of defence’s (Dod) operationally responsive space (ORS) efforts so far have involved AirLaunch’s Boeing C-17 air launched rocket; Lockheed Martin’s hybrid propulsion booster; Microcosm’s highly modular vehicle; and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Falcon launcher.
Maybe ATK knows something we don’t, maybe ORS, like so many space programmes, is spiralling out of budgetary control with no clear winner for the 450kg to low Earth orbit service the Dod wants?
At the other end of the satellite mass spectrum you have the controversial United Launch Alliance (ULA) joint venture, and another out of the blue announcement this month.
The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) finally, in the first week of October, gave its deliberation on the matter of the abandonment of competition for US military launch provision with the Boeing, Lockheed ULA venture.
After a very long delay FTC gave its legal thumbs up for a deal that sees Lockheed most certainly emerge the winner with all of the joint venture’s launchers being built at its facility.
But then Lockheed keeps winning this year, with its victory over Boeing for the $8 billion plus NASA Orion crew exploration vehicle contract; another surprise announcement for many space programmer followers.
Whether or not the final approval of ULA followed the sudden, out of the blue, sale of Lockheed’s interest in Lockheed Khrunichev Energia International and ILS International Launch Services to the, how dodgy is this, British Virgin islands registered Space Transport company, is another question raised by the surprise Russian sale bonanza event.
The Russian media reported that Lockheed was dropping out of the global commercial market and focusing only on US government launches. Not so. Its Commercial Launch Services arm will still market the Atlas booster.
What the ULA derived subsidy means for Lockheed and Boeing’s commercial arms is a sensitive issue amongst the industry’s players.
If you talk to satellite manufacturers and launch providers about what all this means for the market they, apparently quite honestly reply, we don’t know. But they look worried saying it.
New kid on the block SpaceX meanwhile is planning to use its billionaire owner Elon Musk’s funds to throw lawyers at the Dod and ULA to make sure they honour their FTC commitment to consider alternative launcher providers. Can they possibly succeed?
Meanwhile Rocketplane-Kistler’s NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) looked as though it would prove me right quicker than I had ever expected with its own out of the blue announcement in September.
Orbital Sciences, RpK’s strategic partner, made a strategic decision to quit the COTS partnership after it couldn’t come to an “agreement” and promptly walked away with its once promised $10 million of investment.
Orbital is tight lipped about the split while the self-named “New Space” industry (these are companies who would like to displace Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, and Orbital for big NASA projects) gossip suggests that the “old space” firm threw its weight around after its Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle team, led by Lockheed, won big with the $8 billion contact for Orion.
Whatever actually happened another “New Space” company, namely Andrews Space, stepped into the breach. However neither RpK nor Andrews would comment on how much dough the new partner was bringing to the party. I suspect that despite RpK probably being unable to put the $40 million on the table it would like too for the first stage of COTS NASA will not pull the rug and the plucky Oklahoma based joint venture will soldier on, but for how long?
One wonders what else, COTS, ULA, FTC, ORS related will come out of the blue in a year that is seeing old assumptions questioned and new developments take unexpected turns.

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