United Launched Alliance announced about declining bidding in competition for launch service provider in GPS III missions.
The heroes are tired – and defeats are not the factor that could change the fate. Boeing as part of ULA had already bad luck with third generation of GPS satellites. In 2008 Lockheed took over from Boeing in designing and manufacturing GPS satellites of third generation. It seemed that after launching first Lockheed designed GPS satellite with ULA Atlas V everything will stay in family. Boeing lost contract, but still as part of ULA will participate in income generated by launch services. ULA was main contractor for GPS satellites, NROL missions and many other Government contracts since its establishing in 2006. Participating in competition for launching GPS III seemed to be clear.
But again fate is going after Elon Musk thoughts. Since Congress decided about ban for trading space technologies with Russia (after political and military crisis in Ukraine), ULA woke up with wagon without a horse. Atlas V was equipped with Russian RD180 engines (made by NPO Energomash plants) and with limited quantities of engines in stock, ULA was dependent on supplies from Russia. Until their new rocket Vulcan, equipped with American made Blue Origin BE-4 engine, will become operational (in 2019), ULA needs 14 RD180 engines to stay in the game with government contracts. Situation started to be difficult for Boeing, due the retiring their Delta IV rocket and moving all launches to Atlas V. Won (in September 2015) contract for Department of Defense launches for fiscal year 2016 worth around $882 million started to be endangered. Objections submitted by both USAF and ULA into Congress and House committees. Situation was still not clear. The House Armed Services Committee allowed for adding additional nine engines to five already ordered, but Senate Armed Services Committee allowed only for ordering total amount of nine.
On 10th October 2015 Pentagon announced that will not support ULA with waiver to omit Congress ban for RD180. Lack of necessary amount of engines seemed main reason for ULA decision about leaving competition with SpaceX. But according to Reuters it was not: ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno informed Reuters about requirements of the competition in terms of accounting system; ULA should certify that funds from other government contracts are not utilized in GPS III launches. In this same interview, Tony Bruno gave an opinion according to competition was created to favor offers representing rule “‘Lowest Price Technically Acceptable”, without taking into account factors like reliability, technical capacity, ability to meet deadlines and performance. At the same time he expressed the hope that ULA still hopes that cooperation with USAF will be possible in future.
It could seem that Congress recognized as a best sanction for Russia lack of income from selling rocket engines combined with lack of new launches of American reconnaissance satellites. Before considering Congress decision in such way it is good to remind similar situation during Iran-Contras affair (trading with Iran and transferring money from these transactions for anticommunist guerilla during Ronald Reagan presidency). Buying RD180 engines for launching reconnaissance satellites and providing Russian state necessary funds (especially when essence of sanctions is depletion of foreign exchange reserves of Russia) would probably cause that launched satellites would have plenty things for observation on Ukraine for a long time. From the point of view of politician, RD180 is primarily a means of putting pressure on Russia, then a simply rocket engine necessary for launching satellites. For ULA bitter pill remains fact, that RD180 which are utilized in NASA missions are not covered with ban; maybe this discrepancy in the approach to the ban will give chance for ULA to find a way to put pressure on Congress.