Tim Furniss/LONDON

The US Air Force is expected shortly to award Boeing and Lockheed Martin $500 million contracts to begin development of new booster families which will cut the cost of launching satellites into orbit. The first operational launches are planned for 2001.

The USAF's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) programme will cover the development of small, medium and heavy launchers based on common core boosters. Almost 200 military launches of small and medium boosters will be required to 2010, while demand for heavy booster launches seems to be dwindling to just dozens, because of an emerging military trend towards smaller spacecraft and constellations of small satellites.

It is anticipated, therefore, that the majority of EELVs ordered initially will be small and medium launchers, with options for a small number of heavylifters for the USAF. The numbers of EELVs ordered initially may also be quite small, as Boeing already has 18 Delta IIs booked for military launches, while Lockheed Martin has seven Titan IIs, 19 Titan IV heavylifters, two Atlas IIAs, up to seven Atlas IIASs and one Atlas III booked to launch other military satellites.

The EELV contracts will also be a boost for the US commercial launcher industry, particularly for launches of satellite constellations for the growing mobile-telecommunications industry. As this market grows, many analysts forecast the need for launches of even larger numbers of satellites on heavylift boosters, providing work for a fleet of EELV heavy boosters, development of which would largely be funded by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Where a Titan IV launch today costs about $300 million, the EELV heavy booster will have to halve that price to be attractive. The US Department of Defense may also follow the commercial lead, and has plans already in the pipeline to launch smaller constellations of military satellites.

As the USAF already has at its disposal a range of boosters, the success of the EELV programme should be judged on how much cost-cutting can be achieved and by how much operational performance can be improved. The USAF goal is to cut launch costs by 25-50% from $5,500/kg. If a Delta II-class launch, which today costs $45 million, can be reduced to $25 million using a small EELV, then the programme is likely to be successful and a commercial hit.

The aim is to reduce pre-launch on-pad time from about 24 days for a Delta II, for example, to between six and eight days for an EELV by using new horizontal-processing procedures. A Titan IV, in contrast, remains on the pad for weeks before launch.

Both companies have already made substantial investments and commitments to support the EELV programme before receipt of the final contracts, including the Boeing establishment of a common core booster production plant at Decatur in Alabama. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are also modifying launch pads at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Vandenberg, California, in preparation for EELV launches.

The companies have already completed work on $60 million phase two EELV contracts, having been selected from four contenders, which included Alliant TechSystems and McDonnell Douglas (now part of Boeing).

Source: Flight International