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Why the most maligned rocket in the world is also one of the most reliable

The 45th Space Wing successfully launched a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the second Mobile User Objective System (MUOS-2) satellite for the U. (Video: NASA)

It is a much-maligned rocket, derided for its high cost and criticized for its foreign-made engine. It is caught up in a congressional fight that gets uglier by the week and has now touched off a high-profile Pentagon investigation.

And yet when the Atlas V is fully fueled and on the launch pad, it is all business and routinely reliable, delivering its fiery thrust liftoff after liftoff. Late Tuesday night, it continued to bolster its impressive box score, launching the 62nd consecutive time without a failure, the 106th straight successful launch for the United Launch Alliance.

Aside from the statistics, Tuesday’s launch, under contract from NASA, was an important one. It put an Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft into orbit, en route to the International Space Station, where it will deliver food, supplies and science experiments, including “gecko grippers,” which would study how gecko-like adhesives could work in space.

It was the second time the Atlas V came to the rescue for Orbital ATK, which saw its Antares rocket blow up in late 2014. While a new Antares is being developed, Orbital ATK has relied on ULA to launch its spacecraft to orbit. And those successful flights have helped restore confidence in NASA’s decision to contract out the cargo resupply missions to the station.

But Tuesday’s launch came on the same day the Pentagon inspector general announced it would investigate the national security contracts that have been ULA’s lifeblood. Meanwhile, ULA, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, is staring down the great disruptive force known as Elon Musk, who threatens to eat into its business. Musk’s SpaceX won the right to compete against the ULA for the lucrative national security launch business, ending ULA’s years-long monopoly on the missions.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has also taken aim at the company, attempting to limit the use of the Russian-made engine that powers the Atlas V. He believes that the United States should not have to rely on the Russians to launch national security payloads, such as communications and intelligence satellites, at a time when there is heightened tension between the two countries.

Not everyone at ULA appreciated the senator’s efforts, and one let it be known at a recent talk, which was recorded and posted on the Internet. During his presentation, Brett Tobey, an engineering executive, said that McCain “basically doesn’t like us” and that the Pentagon was “trying to figure out, how do we silence McCain?”

He also added that the Pentagon was upset that ULA did not bid on a recent contract after it had “bent over backwards to lean the field to our advantage.”

That touched off a firestorm, with McCain calling on the Pentagon to investigate. Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter referred the matter to the IG, which said Tuesday that it had launched an investigation that would seek to determine whether the contracts for the launches were “awarded in accordance with” federal regulations.

Tory Bruno, ULA’s chief executive, said the comments “were not aligned with the direction of the company, my views, nor the views I expect from ULA leaders.” And Tobey quickly resigned.

An hour before midnight Tuesday, however, the Atlas V seemed unaware of all the controversy swirling around it. And when mission control counted down from T-minus 10, it did what it has so many times before, launched without failure or delay, as ULA’s executives cheered it on.