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Nov. 9, 2012—
Space launches involving Pratt & Whitney's RL-10 upper-stage motor will have to wait until investigators determine the cause of an anomaly with this engine during the recent launch of a GPS IIF satellite, said Gen. William Shelton, head of Air Force Space Command.

"We have to find out what happened," said Shelton during an AFA-Air Force Breakfast Program talk in Arlington, Va., on Nov. 7.

With no alternative motor supplier, "there is no plan B," and AFSPC can't afford to risk the loss of a payload, such as the X-37 reusable spaceplane slated to fly later this month, he said.

The RL-10 behaved anomalously, requiring "a bit of a diving save" during the Oct. 4 GPS mission, and command officials found items "in the data that we didn't like," said Shelton.

He explained that "yes, the upper stage got us to orbit" and "we're fortunate that we had enough margin."

However, "had we had a heavier payload . . . we might not have made it," he said, adding that, "the engine underperformed, but we had enough fuel on board that it got us" to orbit.

Nonetheless, the problems warranted an investigative board as well as "a discretionary accident board," said Shelton.

With only one such upper-stage system, "we have to get this right," but so far, "we still don't have a root cause" of the problem, he said.

Shelton asked for "patience" with the process, which is "winnowing the data" at this stage.

Answers won't come quickly, he added, saying: "I don't think we're close on the investigation."

As for the reliance on a single contractor, "we are where we are," said Shelton.

The Air Force made that decision knowing "we had a critical dependency on a single upper stage and that's the path we have chosen to go down for lots of good reasons," he said.