House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) will not intervene in United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) downselect of a first stage booster for its next-generation rocket, despite declaring in a recent letter that the company should provide Congressional approval of such a decision if the company requests Air Force money for the vehicle’s development.

“My whole deal is we need assured access to space, that’s the federal government’s interest,” Thornberry told reporters Wednesday at a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington. “It is not up to me, certainly, or the federal government to make those sort of subcontract decisions.”

Aerojet Rockedyne's AR1 engine. Photo: Aerojet Rocketdyne.
Aerojet Rockedyne’s AR1 engine. Photo: Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Thornberry co-signed a Feb. 28 letter to top Air Force and Pentagon acquisition officials with HASC strategic forces subcommittee Chairman Michael Rogers (R-Ala.). The pair, in this letter, direct the Air Force to not obligate or expend any additional funding to ULA, other than for the launch of current Atlas and Delta rockets, until the company provides the federal government full access to, oversight of, and approval rights over decision making about any downselect on Vulcan (assuming it requests funding). ULA is considering between Blue Origin’s BE-4 or Aerojet Rocketdyne’s [AJRD] AR1 engines for the first stage in its Vulcan launch vehicle.

Charles Miller, a former NASA official and president and founder of NexGen Space LLC, said Wednesday Thornberry clearly changed his mind of some of the details of his letter.

“He clearly realized that government micromanagement of how to build a rocket is a bad idea — and refocused on the critical goal of ‘assured access,’ Miller said. “I give Chairman Thornberry great credit for changing his mind — it is the sign of a confident leader.”

ULA CEO Tory Bruno Wednesday on Twitter declined to say when the company would make its downselect, only saying that the decision was event-driven and paced by engine testing. He said ULA was currently performing full-scale static testing of the BE-4.

Representatives from Thornberry and Rogers did not respond to a request for comment by press time Wednesday. ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said she would be unable to respond by press time Wednesday.

Thornberry and Rogers, in the letter, also direct the Air Force stop ULA’s divestment of the Delta IV Heavy rocket. ULA will continue to offer the Delta IV Heavy until the Air Force completes and selects two new launch providers, Rye said Friday. ULA plans to retire its Delta IV Medium variant, which launched an Air Force Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) communications satellite on Saturday, in the 2018-2019 timeframe. ULA builds both its Delta IV and Atlas V rockets in northern Alabama.

Thornberry reiterated the point of the letter was to ensure assured access to space, the concept (and law) that the Pentagon must have two certified launch providers are all times to ensure defense payloads can reach space (Defense Daily, March 10).

ULA is a joint venture of Boeing [BA] and Lockheed Martin [LMT].