The US Air Force is to spend more than $530 million over six years to help Boeing and Lockheed Martin weather the downturn in commercial satellite launches. Beginning with $164 million in fiscal year 2004, the USAF proposes to invest in "assured access to space", funding infrastructure and engineering work for the Boeing Delta IV and Lockheed Martin Atlas V launchers.

Europe's Arianespace has meanwhile confirmed plans to order more Ariane 5G basic launchers, following the December failure of the uprated Ariane 5 ECA, to "ensure continuity of its launch services". Six Ariane 5Gs remain to be launched, with the next flight of the booster due late this month, probably carrying the Galaxy 12 and Insat 3A communications satellites.

The European and US companies have been hit by the sharp downturn in the commercial launch market, while the failure of the Ariane 5 ECA on its maiden flight was a further blow for Arianespace. The European company says it won 11 out of 15 launch contracts last year, but lost €50-60 million ($54-65 million).

The "assured access" funding sought by the US Air Force is intended to ensure both Boeing and Lockheed Martin survive the downturn. The USAF's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) programme was predicated on the companies securing commercial customers for their boosters, reducing the cost of military launches.

The assured-access money is in addition to the cost of buying military launches from the companies, and takes planned US Air Force spending under the EELV programme to more than $5.5 billion over six years from 2004 to 2009.

The US Department of Defense has launched a review of the cost of maintaining two EELV competitors after 2004, but the USAF does not anticipate having to downselect to one launch provider, because of its need to assure access to space.

Boeing's first Delta IV flight for the USAF under the EELV programme has been delayed again. The launch, carrying a DSCS military communications satellite, was put back from February to March, but has been postponed due to a valve problem on the Rocketdyne RS-68 first-stage cryogenic engine.

Source: Flight International