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Delta IV liftoff from SLC-37. Delta IV is one of the rockets in the NSSL program.

National Security Space Launch (NSSL), previously Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), is a launch system program of the United States Air Force (USAF) intended to assure access to space for Department of Defense and other United States government payloads. The program, which began in the 1990s with the goal of making government space launches more affordable and reliable, resulted in the development of the Delta IV and Atlas V. Along with the newer Falcon 9, these launch systems are the primary methods for launching U.S. military satellites.[1][2]

The USAF plans to use the NSSL family of launch vehicles until at least 2030. Follow-on technologies are being considered, one of which was the Reusable Booster System,[3] discontinued in 2012.[4]

The program officially changed its name from Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle to National Security Space Launch on March 1, 2019, to better reflect the changing nature of launch vehicles that includes reusable systems.[5]




The U.S. Air Force assembled its initial blue print for what was then the EELV program in 1994, following many years of government-funded studies into an improved system and architecture, which was intended to replace "legacy" platforms including Delta II, Atlas II/Centaur, and Titan IV. The architecture called for the spacelifter to be based on standardized fairings, liquid core vehicles, upper stages, and solid rockets. The Standard Payload Interface bus was also proposed as another way to save money and improve efficiency.

Principal concerns in the ongoing development of Department of Defense (DoD) launch platforms are diminishing budgets and to ensure national access to space.[6] The importance of the United States having assured access to space is laid out by the National Presidential Directive Number 40 which states:

Access to space through U.S. space transportation capabilities is essential to:

  1. place critical United States Government assets and capabilities into space;
  2. augment space-based capabilities in a timely manner in the event of increased operational needs or minimize disruptions due to on-orbit satellite failures, launch failures, or deliberate actions against U.S. space assets;
  3. support government and commercial human space flight.

The United States, therefore, must maintain robust, responsive, and resilient U.S. space transportation capabilities to assure access to space.[7]

Procurement of EELV boosters for military space launch was to evolve into a "commercial like" nature.[8] The initial bids came from four major defense contractors: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, and Alliant Techsystems. Each of the bids included a variety of concepts. One of the contractors, Boeing, initially proposed utilizing the Space Shuttle main engines (SSME).[9] When McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997, the latter put forth the Delta IV as their EELV proposal. Both the Delta IV and Lockheed Martin's Atlas V eventually entered service.

United Launch Alliance

In 2003, Boeing was found to be in possession of proprietary documents from Lockheed Martin.[10] To end litigation, rather than compete, both companies agreed to form the United Launch Alliance joint venture.[11] Each company has a 50% stake in ULA.[12]


In October 1998 two initial launch services contracts (known as Buy 1) were awarded. Along with the award of two development agreements, the total amount was more than $3 billion.[13] Boeing was awarded a contract for 19 out of the 28 launches; Lockheed Martin was awarded a contract for the other 9. Boeing received $1.38 billion, and Lockheed Martin received $650 million for the launches.[14] In 2003 the USAF moved 7 launches from Delta IV to Atlas V.[15]

In December 2012, the DoD announced a re-opening of the EELV-class launch vehicle market to competition beginning in 2015. "Under the new plan, the Air Force is authorized to proceed with a block buy of "up to" 36 launch cores from current monopoly vendor United Launch Alliance, while at the same time opening up another 14 cores to be purchased competitively. The new era will begin in 2015 with initial launches to be performed in 2017."[16]

The Air Force signed a contract at that time with SpaceX for two launches in 2014 and 2015 to serve as proving flights to support the certification process for the Falcon 9 v1.1 and Falcon Heavy.[17] Following these, in April 2014, SpaceX sued the United States Air Force in order to gain access to the EELV program.[18][19] SpaceX argued the RD-180 engines used by the Atlas V, produced in Russia by the government owned NPO Energomash, violated sanctions against the Russian government.[20] The Air Force and SpaceX settled the lawsuit in Jan 2015 by opening up more launches to competitive bidding.[21][22] The Air Force certified the Falcon 9 in May 2015,[23] and in 2016 SpaceX won a contract under the EELV program to launch a GPS III payload to MEO.[24]


For the launch vehicle for the Orion spacecraft, The Aerospace Corporation was asked by NASA three times, in 2005, 2008 and 2009, to assess technical feasibility and cost of modifying an EELV to be human-rated for use in NASA human spaceflight missions.[25] Two later assessments also addressed the possibility of replacing the Ares I with a Delta IV Heavy. The reports indicate that the Delta IV Heavy meets ISS and lunar target performance requirements.[26] Unlike other modifications of the Delta IV, the Heavy variant does not use solid rocket boosters. In a presentation to the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee, an Aerospace Corporation representative presented a summary of the study. The summary asserts that even without a newly developed upper stage, it would be feasible for a human-rated Delta IV Heavy to launch a crewed Orion spacecraft to the International Space Station.[27] ULA has since published a paper[28] detailing the changes needed for man-rating EELVs. On February 2, 2010 NASA awarded[29] ULA $6.7 million in stimulus funds under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. A Space Act Agreement was set up to develop an Emergency Detection System (EDS) that could be used on both EELVs. An EDS monitors critical launch vehicle and spacecraft systems and issues status, warning and abort commands to the crew during their mission to low Earth orbit.

SpaceX works on human-rating the Falcon 9 launch vehicle with the Dragon 2 capsule. A first crewed flight is planned in June 2019.[30]

Boeing works on Boeing CST-100 Starliner, designed to fly with Atlas V, Delta IV, Falcon 9 or the future Vulcan rocket. Initial flights will use an Atlas V variant.[31]

Launch vehiclesEdit

Boeing and Lockheed Martin were both collectively awarded US$100 million for the final phase of the bid. Both companies built their designs around modularization, standardization and minimizing the amount of equipment and using proven, reliable and simplified systems. Boeing developed the Common Booster Core (CBC) that would be the center of the Delta IV. For the Atlas V Lockheed Martin did something similar, calling it a Common Core Booster (CCB).[13]

Atlas VEdit

Atlas V liftoff from SLC-41

The Atlas V space launch system has a lineage that began in 1954 under the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program.[32]. The first US ICBM was the SM-65 Atlas, soon to be developed into a space launch vehicle.[32]

Main features include the Common Core Booster powered by an NPO Energomash RD-180 engine, Aerojet strap-on solid boosters (up to five), and a Centaur upper stage, powered by single or dual Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RL10A-4-2 engines. There are options of a 4.2- or 5.4-meter payload fairing (PLF). A three-digit (XYZ) naming convention is used for the Atlas V configuration identification. The first digit represents the payload fairing size (either 4 or 5), the second digit represents the number of solid rocket boosters used (0 through 5), and the third digit represents the number of engines used on the Centaur (1 or 2).

Delta IVEdit

The Delta SLV is a direct descendant of the PGM-17 Thor missile. Originating as a launch vehicle in the 1950s, the Delta program was initiated by NASA.

Main features include the Common Booster Core (CBC) powered by a Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne RS-68 engine, a Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS), and off-pad horizontal vehicle integration. The Delta IV M configuration consists of a CBC first stage and a 4 m diameter DCSS.[33] There are three variants of Delta IV M+ configuration. The Delta IV M+(4,2) uses two strap-on solid rocket motors (SRMs) solid rocket booster to augment the first-stage CBC and a 4 m diameter DCSS and PLF. The Delta IV M+(5,2) and Delta IV M+(5,4) have two and four SRMs, respectively and 5 m diameter DCSS and PLF. The Heavy Lift Vehicle (HLV) variant has two strap-on CBC cores with a 5 m DCSS and PLF. The Delta IV-Heavy utilizes the same configuration as the Delta IV-M (no strap on Aerojet boosters) but with two additional Common Booster Cores.

Falcon 9Edit

Falcon 9 liftoff from SLC-4E

The Falcon 9 is a clean-sheet rocket designed by SpaceX. Announced in 2005, the Falcon 9 had its first flight in 2010. As of May 2018, it has gone through five major revisions.

All Falcon 9 versions are two-stage, LOX/RP-1-powered launch vehicles.

The Falcon 9 tank walls and domes are made from aluminum–lithium alloy. The tanks are made using friction stir welding, the highest-strength and most reliable welding technique available.[34] The second-stage tank of a Falcon 9 is simply a shorter version of the first-stage tank and uses most of the same tooling, material and manufacturing techniques, reducing production costs.[34] SpaceX uses multiple redundant flight computers in a fault-tolerant design. Each Merlin rocket engine is controlled by three voting computers, each of which has two physical processors that constantly check each other. The software runs on Linux and is written in C++.[35] For flexibility, commercial off-the-shelf parts and system-wide radiation-tolerant design are used instead of rad-hardened parts.[35] Each stage has stage-level flight computers, in addition to the Merlin-specific engine controllers, of the same fault-tolerant triad design to handle stage-control functions.

The first NSSL-class payload launch by this configuration launched on December 23, 2018.[36]

Falcon HeavyEdit

The Falcon Heavy is a heavy-lift rocket developed and produced by SpaceX. It is being (as of 2019) certified for the NSSL program. It is scheduled to fly a test mission for the certification process for NSSL-clearance on 22 June 2019. It also has (as of 2019) 2 scheduled classified national security flights for the US Air Force in its flight manifest for years 2020 and 2021.


OmegA is a rocket design by Orbital ATK (now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems), using solid rockets for stage 1, with a maiden flight expected 2021.

New GlennEdit

In October 2018, the Air Force announced Blue Origin was awarded $500 million for development of New Glenn as a potential competitor in future contracts.[37] Maiden flight for the New Glenn rocket is expected by Blue Origin for 2021 (as of 2019).


In October 2018, the Air Force announced ULA was awarded funding for development of Vulcan as a potential competitor in future contracts.[38] The maiden flight is expected (as of 2019) for April 2021.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Capaccio, Tony (December 29, 2009). "Boeing May Lose $271 Million in Rocket Billings, Pentagon Says". Bloomberg Businessweek.
  2. ^ "SpaceX's Falcon 9 Breaks EELV Monopoly". Spaceflight Insider. May 27, 2015. Retrieved January 15, 2017.
  3. ^ Norris, Guy (April 23, 2012). "Reusable Successor To EELV Moving Ahead". Aviation Week & Space Technology. Retrieved April 24, 2012.
  4. ^ Ferster, Warren (October 19, 2012). "Prototype Reusable Rocket Effort Felled by U.S. Budget Woes". SpaceNews. Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  5. ^ "Air Force establishes National Security Space Launch program" (Press release). U.S. Air Force. SpaceRef. March 1, 2019. Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  6. ^ Coleman, M. (2000). U.S. Expendable Launch Vehicle Performance History. 36th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference. July 24-28, 2000. Las Vegas, Nevada. doi:10.2514/6.2000-3281. AIAA-2000-3281.
  7. ^ "National Security Presidential Directive 40: U.S. Space Transportation Policy" (PDF). The White House. December 21, 2004.
  8. ^ Buzzatto, John L. (2003). The Transition of Space Launch - Heritage to EELV. AIAA Space 2003 Conference & Exposition. September 23-25, 2003. Long Beach, California. doi:10.2514/6.2003-6408. AIAA-2003-6408.
  9. ^ "Boeing Banks on SSME For Air Force Contract". SpaceNews. May 1, 1995. p. 2.
  10. ^ "Two Former Boeing Managers Charged in Plot to Steal Trade Secrets from Lockheed Martin". U.S. Department of Justice. June 25, 2003. Archived from the original on December 13, 2012. Retrieved October 22, 2016.
  11. ^ Shanklin, Emily (April 29, 2014). "EELV: The Right to Compete". SpaceX. Retrieved October 22, 2016.
  12. ^ "About ULA". ULA.
  13. ^ a b "Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle". U.S. Air Force Space Command. March 2009. Archived from the original on April 27, 2014.
  14. ^ "EELV Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle".
  15. ^ Ray, Justin (July 24, 2003). "Pentagon strips 7 launches from Boeing Delta 4 rocket". Spaceflight Now.
  16. ^ Money, Stewart (December 4, 2012). "EELV Update: A Split Decision and a New Beginning". Innerspace. Retrieved December 5, 2012.
  17. ^ "SpaceX Awarded Two EELV-Class Missions from the United States Air Force". December 5, 2012.
  18. ^ Silver, Joe (April 25, 2014). "After successful landing, SpaceX to sue Air Force to compete for launch contracts". Ars Technica. Retrieved January 15, 2017.
  19. ^ Farivar, Cyrus (July 25, 2014). "SpaceX wins intermediate victory over US in launch contract case". Ars Technica. Retrieved January 15, 2017.
  20. ^ Hutchinson, Lee (May 1, 2014). "SpaceX says rocket purchases violate Russian sanctions, gets injunction". Ars Technica. Retrieved January 15, 2017.
  21. ^ Gallagher, Sean (January 25, 2015). "SpaceX elbows into Air Force launch program after dropping lawsuit". Ars Technica. Retrieved January 15, 2017.
  22. ^ Gruss, Mike (January 23, 2015). "SpaceX, Air Force Settle Lawsuit over ULA Blockbuy". SpaceNews.
  23. ^ Gruss, Mike (May 26, 2015). "SpaceX Falcon 9 Certified for Military Launches". SpaceNews.
  24. ^ Gruss, Mike (April 27, 2016). "SpaceX wins $82 million contract for 2018 Falcon 9 launch of GPS 3 satellite". SpaceNews. Retrieved April 29, 2016.
  25. ^ Morring Jr, Frank (June 16, 2009). "NASA - Study Finds Human-rated Delta IV Cheaper". Aviation News Releases. Aviation Week.
  26. ^ Bearden, David A.; Skratt, John P.; Hart, Matthew J. (June 1, 2009). "Human-Rated Delta IV Heavy Study Constellation Architecture Impacts" (PDF). NASA/The Aerospace Corporation. TOR-2009(2187)-9151.
  27. ^ Pulliam, Gary (June 17, 2009). "Initial Summary of Human Rated Delta IV Heavy Study: Briefing to the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee" (PDF). NASA/The Aerospace Corporation.
  28. ^ Patton, Jeff A.; Barr, Jonathon D. (2009). Atlas and Delta Capabilities to Launch Crew to Low Earth Orbit (PDF). AIAA SPACE 2009 Conference & Exposition. September 14-17, 2009. Pasadena, California. doi:10.2514/6.2009-6729. AIAA-2009-6729.
  29. ^ "NASA Selects United Launch Alliance for Commercial Crew Development Program" (Press release). United Launch Alliance. February 2, 2010.
  30. ^ Heiney, Anna (October 4, 2018). "NASA's Commercial Crew Program Target Test Flight Dates". NASA. Retrieved December 14, 2018.
  31. ^ Egan, Barbara [@barbegan13] (October 15, 2016). "We are calling the config N22. No payload fairing with the Starliner on board" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  32. ^ a b Minami, H. (1991). Atlas engines - A history. 27th Joint Propulsion Conference. June 24-26, 1991. Sacramento, California. doi:10.2514/6.1991-1943. AIAA-91-1943-CP.
  33. ^ Graham, William (April 3, 2012). "ULA Delta IV launches the NROL-25 military satellite from VAFB".
  34. ^ a b "Falcon 9 Overview (2010)". SpaceX. Archived from the original on December 22, 2010. Retrieved May 8, 2010.
  35. ^ a b Svitak, Amy (November 18, 2012). "Dragon's "Radiation-Tolerant" Design". Aviation Week. Archived from the original on December 3, 2013. Retrieved November 22, 2012.
  36. ^ Clark, Stephen (December 17, 2018). "Air Force requirements will keep SpaceX from landing Falcon 9 booster after GPS launch". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved December 18, 2018.
  37. ^ Erwin, Sandra (October 10, 2018). "Air Force awards launch vehicle development contracts to Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, ULA -". Retrieved October 11, 2018.
  38. ^ Erwin, Sandra (October 10, 2018). "Air Force awards launch vehicle development contracts to Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, ULA -". Retrieved October 11, 2018.

External linksEdit