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Summer is coming to an end and this will be the last of our "summer vacation" multi-week lists of upcoming space policy events. This edition covers two weeks, August 31-September 11. The House and Senate return to work on September 8.
During the Week
This week begins with AIAA's Space 2015 conference in Pasadena, CA tomorrow (Monday) through Wednesday. If you can't be there in person, AIAA is providing a livestream of at least some of the sessions (the event's website does not indicate which ones). Four plenary sessions may be of particular interest and hopefully are among those that will be webcast:
Another event of special interest is the launch of Soyuz TMA-18M very early Wednesday morning (12:37 am Eastern Daylight Time--EDT). This mission is a bit of an anomaly in recent years where two of the three crew will remain on board the International Space Station (ISS) for just one week instead of several months. ESA's Andreas Mogensen and Kazakhstan's Aidyn Aimbetov will return to Earth on September 11 EDT (September 12 local time at the landing site) along with Russia's Gennady Padalka, who has been on ISS since March. Padalka launched with NASA's Scott Kelly and Russia's Mikhail Kornienko and those two are staying aboard for a one-year mission, but their Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft can only remain on orbit for six months so it and Padalka -- along with Mogensen and Aimbetov -- will come back to Earth. Russia's Sergei Volkov will command Soyuz TMA-18M and replace Padalka.
Mogensen and Aimbetov's time aboard ISS will be even shorter than expected because last week the decision was made to use the two-day rendezvous trajectory to get there instead of the new six-hour direct ascent route introduced for crew launches on Soyuz TMA-08M in March 2013. The two-day trip is necessary because the ISS orbit was raised recently to avoid a piece of space junk, changing the orbital dynamics involved in getting there. The new orbit also caused a one day slip in the launch date (from September 1). The Soyuz TMA-18M crew now will arrive on September 4, giving Mogensen and Aimbetov just seven and a half days on ISS. It may be just as well since the ISS will be a bit crowded -- for the first time since November 2013, there will be nine people aboard. On the other hand, ESA said that it means significant replanning of Mogensen's research activities and some experiments will have to be left for other astronauts to complete in the future.
Aimbetov, by the way, was a last minute addition to the crew after singer Sarah Brightman withdrew from the mission. A military pilot, he was selected as a Kazakh cosmonaut in 2002 and trained at Star City. He became a Russian citizen along the way, but is flying as a Kazakh, not Russian, crew member. He was assigned to the flight in June and Kazakh officials say they are paying $20 million, so he apparently is filling Brightman's "space tourist" slot, although he has been through the full training regimen. He will be the third Kazakh cosmonaut (after Toktar Aubakirov and Talgat Musabayev), not counting Soviet cosmonauts from Kazakhstan when it was part of the Soviet Union.
Those events and others that we know about as of today (August 30) for the next two weeks are listed below.
Monday-Wednesday, August 31-September 2
Tuesday, September 1
Wednesday, September 2
Wednesday-Friday, September 2-4
Friday, September 4
Tuesday, September 8
Tuesday-Thursday, September 8-10
Wednesday, September 9
Thursday, September 10
Friday, September 11
UPDATE, August 28, 2015, 11:25 pm EDT: the upper stage firings were successful and Inmarsat-5 F3 has been successfully delivered into geostationary orbit.
UPDATE, August 28, 2015, 8:00 am EDT: Liftoff took place as planned and the three-stage Proton-M rocket appears to have performed flawlessly. The Briz-M upper stage is now making the first of five firings to place the satellite into geostationary orbit. It will take 15 hours and 31 minutes for the satellite to reach its destination.
ORIGINAL STORY, August 27, 2015: Russia plans to launch an Inmarsat satellite using its Proton-M rocket on Friday, August 28. It is the first Proton-M launch since a May 2015 failure destroyed a Mexican communications satellite. The once reliable Proton, the largest of Russia's current fleet, has suffered a number of failures in recent years, but typically returns to flight after a few months, as is true this time.
U.S.-based International Launch Services (ILS) markets the Proton globally and will broadcast Friday's launch of Inmarsat-5 F3 on its website. The launch of the Proton-M with a Briz-M upper stage is scheduled for 14:44 Moscow Time, which is 12:44 British Summer Time (in London where Inmarsat is headquartered), which is 11:44 GMT, which is 7:44 am EDT. (Note that ILS incorrectly tweeted today, Thursday, that the launch is at 12:44 GMT. As Inmarsat's website attests, it is at 12:44 BST, or 11:44 GMT).
The May 16, 2015 Proton failure 497 seconds after launch was attributed to an old design flaw that affects the turbopump for the rocket's third stage steering engine. In investigating this accident, Russia engineers determined that the same flaw caused a failure almost three decades ago, in 1988, that previously was thought to have been caused by a manufacturing defect. This year's failure doomed Mexico's MexSat-1 (Centenario) communications satellite, the second of three in that series. The third is scheduled for launch on a Lockheed Martin Atlas V rocket in October 2015.
At the time of the MexSat-1 failure, the President of Inmarsat, Rupert Pearce, issued a statement sounding highly displeased since it was the third time the company's Global Xpress system was encountering delays because of Proton failures. Ironically, Pearce expressed relief that the company had another satellite under construction and a "potential" SpaceX launch in the second half of 2016 in case Proton was delayed for a long time or this return-to-flight failed. A month later, SpaceX suffered its own launch failure and has not announced when it will resume launches.
Russia is developing a new series of rockets, Angara, to replace Proton and other Soviet-era launch vehicles, several of which have failed in recent years. The May 16 Proton failure came on the heels of a Soyuz failure that placed the Progress M-27M spacecraft in the wrong orbit from which it quickly reentered. SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on Russian launch failures since December 2010 lists them.
Assuming all goes well, the Inmarsat-5 F3 satellite will reach geostationary orbit 15 hours and 31 minutes after liftoff, Inmarsat explains. Once operational, it will join two previously launched satellites in providing Ka-band global high speed broadband network connectivity -- the Global Xpress service. This satellite will cover the Pacific Ocean region. Inmarsat-5 F1 covers the Indian Ocean region, while Inmarsat-5 F2 covers the Americas and Atlantic Ocean region. Both were launched by Proton rockets, in December 2013 and February 2015 respectively.
NASA told Congress this week that it is not giving SpaceX special treatment in the investigation of the Orb-3 and SpX-7 launch failures, but that the investigations are quite similar. It said the perception that NASA's role in studying the SpaceX failure is less intense is the result of a misunderstanding.
House Science, Space, and Technology Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) wrote to NASA earlier this month asking a series of questions about NASA's role in finding the causes of the two failures: the October 28, 2014 failure of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket with a Cygnus capsule loaded with supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) and the June 28, 2015 failure of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon capsule also full of supplies for the ISS. Both launches were under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract between NASA and the two companies. The Antares/Cygnus launch was Orbital's third CRS launch, Orb-3. SpaceX's launch was its seventh under the CRS contract -- SpaceX CRS-7 or SpX-7.
As commercial launches, they were licensed by the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and the accident investigations conducted pursuant to AST regulations. Accordingly, the companies themselves are in charge of the investigations, not the FAA or NASA.
Smith basically wanted to know why NASA set up an Independent Review Team (IRT) in the wake of the Orb-3 accident, but did not for SpX-7 and whether that implied that SpaceX was being given preferential treatment.
NASA's August 24 response, signed by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, was that although it may not seem so on the surface, NASA's handling of both launch failures is similar. The major difference is that Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK following a merger with ATK earlier this year) is only providing Antares launch services to NASA under the CRS contract while SpaceX's Falcon 9 may also be used for other NASA launches, such as the upcoming launch of the Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite, under a different NASA contract, NASA Launch Services II (NLS II). Furthermore, Falcon 9 will be used for SpaceX's launches of crew to the ISS under the commercial crew program. Antares will not.
Bolden's argument is that NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP), which administers the NLS II contract, and commercial crew program have sufficient insight into SpaceX's activities to satisfy the function of an IRT.
NASA chose to establish an IRT for the Orb-3 failure and "[w]hile it may not have been as visible, we chose to do a similar thing for the SpaceX failure, conducting an independent review, but using existing mechanisms that were already in place," Bolden wrote. Because of this "misunderstanding," many of the questions posed by Smith were "written under an incorrect premise...."
The five page letter, plus enclosures, goes on to respond to the "spirit of those questions," concluding that NASA is, in fact, conducting independent reviews of both failures and of the Orbital ATK and SpaceX "approaches to return to flight." One of the enclosures is an August 3 memorandum for the record from NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, stating that "I have been closely observing the inclusion of NASA in the [Falcon 9 failure] investigation and have determined that NASA LSP should serve the function of an independent review team for NASA for this investigation."
Orbital ATK determined that a malfunction of the NK33/AJ-26 Russian rocket engines on Antares caused the Orb-3 failure, although the official report has not been released yet. It will use a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket for its next Cygnus cargo launch (OA-4) to ISS in December. Antares is expected to return to flight, outfitted with different Russian rocket engines, in March 2016.
SpaceX made a preliminary finding that the SpX-7 failure was due to a bad strut in the rocket's upper stage, but the investigation is ongoing and the company has not announced when the Falcon 9 will return to flight or what it will launch. SpaceX has a long list of customers, both commercial and government, for Falcon 9 launches.
The next Falcon 9 NASA launch is Jason-3, which was supposed to go in July after several earlier satellite-related delays. During a media telecon today on NASA's studies of sea level rise, JPL's Josh Willis said the launch could take place later this year or early next, depending on when the Falcon 9 resumes service. He said the launch would take place as soon as possible, but only when it can be done safely. Jason-3 is a cooperative program between NOAA and Europe's EUMETSAT, with participation by NASA and its French counterpart, CNES. NASA and CNES built the first two in the series and a predecessor, Topex-Poseidon.
Summer will be over before we know it, but for now, our list of upcoming space policy events still spans the next couple of weeks while "business" is slow. Congress returns on September 8, the day after Labor Day.
During the Week
This week starts off with the docking of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA's) HTV5 (Kounotori5) cargo spacecraft with the International Space Station (ISS). The spacecraft was successfully launched on Wednesday and has been catching up with ISS ever since. JAXA astronaut Kimiya Yui is aboard ISS and will be at the controls of Canada's robotic Canadarn2 tomorrow morning (Monday) to capture it. That event is expected about 6:55 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). NASA TV coverage begins at 5:15 am EDT. JAXA's coverage begins at 6:05 am EDT. Installation of HTV5 onto the Harmony node will follow at about 9:45 am EDT. The crew surely will be happy to get those 9,500 pounds of supplies, equipment and science experiments following the three cargo mission failures (one U.S. Orbital Sciences Antares/Cygnus, one Russian Soyuz/Progress, and one U.S. SpaceX Falcon/Dragon) since last October. It should be noted, of course, that there also have been five successful cargo missions (three Russian Progresses and two U.S. SpaceX Dragons) during that time, which, if anything, demonstrates just how much resupply from Earth is needed to sustain the crew and their work.
Tomorrow also is the first day of the three-day Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG) meeting at the Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD. These "AGs" -- assessment groups or analysis groups but NOT "advisory" groups -- apparently no longer are officially part of NASA's advisory process, but are still an opportunity for members of the relevant science community to get together and interact with each other and NASA officials. The meeting is available virtually via WebEx and telecon. Among the many interesting sessions, Bob Pappalardo will talk about plans for the Europa mission on Monday at 3:15 pm ET and Alan Stern is scheduled to talk about the New Horizons Pluto mission on Tuesday at 1:30 pm ET.
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) is scheduled to speak at a Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) luncheon on Tuesday. (The event is listed on MSBR's website, but the link to the flyer is inactive. We assume that's a glitch and the event is going on as planned, but you might want to check with MSBR to be sure). Edwards is the top Democrat ("ranking member") on the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and a strong NASA supporter, especially of projects at Goddard Space Flight Center near her district. Her interest in space goes much further, though. Never mind just trying to convince her colleagues to fund NASA's "Journey to Mars," she has said publicly that she wants to go there herself. Right now, though, she is focused on her current job representing Maryland's 4th congressional district and running for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
On Friday, the Earth Science subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council will meet telephonically. An agenda is not yet posted on the subcommittee's website, but the Federal Register notice says it is an annual performance review of the Earth Science program as required under the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act. The public is welcome to listen in.
Those events and others coming up the first week of September that we know about as of today, August 23, are listed below.
Monday, August 24
Monday-Wednesday, August 24-26
Tuesday, August 25
Friday, August 28
Monday-Wednesday, August 31-September 2
Tuesday, September 1
Wednesday, September 2
Wednesday-Friday, September 2-4
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency(JAXA) successfully launched its fifth cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) today. The HTV5 or Kounotori5 mission is due to arrive at the ISS on Monday.
This fifth H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV5) is taking about 9,500 pounds of supplies, equipment and scientific experiments to the ISS crew. Of that, approximately 8,000 pounds is pressurized cargo including 3,000 pounds of food, water, clothing and perishable goods; 1,900 pounds of vehicle hardware including two new science racks; 2,700 pounds of science equipment; and 170 pounds of equipment for spacewalks. The remainder is unpressurized cargo, including JAXA's CALorimetric Electron Telescope (CALET) that will search for signatures of dark matter. CALET's principal investigator is Shorji Torii of Waseda University in Tokyo.
The HTV5 capsule is designated Kounotori (White Stork) so the mission is referred to by JAXA as HTV5 or Kounotori5 (NASA adds hyphens so calls it HTV-5 or Kounotori-5).
In one sense this is a routine cargo launch, one of many needed each year to keep the ISS and its crew functioning. Cargo launches to the ISS have been anything but routine over the past year, however, with three failures of U.S. and Russian systems: U.S. Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares failure on October 28, 2014 (Orb-3); Russia's Soyuz 2.1a failure on April 28, 2015 (Progress M-27M); and U.S. SpaceX's Falcon 9 failure on June 28, 2015 (SpaceX-7).
Russia's Progress since has returned to flight, with the successful Progress M-28M now docked to the ISS. Orbital Sciences Corporation merged with ATK earlier this year and Orbital ATK's Cygnus spacecraft is expected to return to service on December 3, but aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket rather than Antares. Orbital ATK is refitting Antares with a different rocket engine (Russia's RD-181) and the first launch of this new version of Antares is expected in the first quarter of 2016. SpaceX has not announced when the Falcon 9 will resume launches or what the first one will carry.
HTV5 is now on its way to ISS, however, with a smooth launch at 8:50:49 pm Japan Standard Time (7:50:49 am Eastern Daylight Time) today. It is on a 5-day rendezvous trajectory, with arrival at the ISS scheduled for Monday, August 24. The ISS crew will use the robotic Canadarm2 to grapple HTV5 at approximately 6:55 am EDT and it will be berthed to the ISS Harmony module about three hours later.
JAXA's Kimiya Yui is aboard ISS along with five other ISS crew members: two from NASA (Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren) and three from Roscosmos (Mikhail Kornienko, Gennady Padalka, and Oleg Kononenko). Yui will operate Canadarm2 on Monday to capture HTV5. Lindgren will assist as necessary.
Here is our list of upcoming space policy related events. This edition covers the next three weeks, through Labor Day Weekend when "summer" unofficially ends for those of us in the United States. Labor Day is the first Monday in September. This year it is September 7. Congress and the regular routine of business return on September 8.
During the Week
This coming week leaves lots of time for summer fun, with just one event on our calendar at the moment -- the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA's) launch of the HTV5 cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The launch has been delayed twice already because of weather and JAXA cautions that more weather delays are possible. For now the launch is scheduled for Wednesday, August 19, at 7:50 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). NASA TV will provide coverage beginning at 7:00 am EDT. The cargo capsule is named Kounotori (white stork) so this is sometimes referred to as Kounotori-5.
This is the fifth Japanese cargo mission to ISS and a Japanese astronaut is aboard ISS to welcome it. Kimiya Yui arrived on July 22 with his Soyuz TMA-17M crew mates Kjell Lindgren (NASA) and Oleg Kononenko (Roscosmos). The other three ISS crew members are Gennady Padalka (Roscosmos), Mikhail Kornienko (Roscosmos), and Scott Kelly (NASA). Kelly and Kornienko are not quite mid-way through their "year in space." Yesterday was day 141 according to Kelly, who regularly tweets (@StationCDRKelly) about his experiences. Whenever it launches, HTV5 should arrive at the ISS five days later.
That and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Wednesday, August 19
Monday-Wednesday, August 24-26
Tuesday, August 25
Friday, August 28
Monday-Wednesday, August 31-September 2
Tuesday, September 1
Wednesday-Friday, September 2-4
Veteran space journalist Leonard David reports today that the chemical explosions in Tianjin, China could have an impact on China's space program.
In a post on his website, David cites Chinese state-run news outlets as saying that the explosions broke windows and caused ceilings to collapse at the National Supercomputing Center in Tianjin that "some reports say is tied to China's space program." He adds that the installation, Tianhe-1, was shut down because of the damage.
China's new Long March 5 and Long March 7 rockets are manufactured and tested in Tianjin. A December 25, 2014 China Daily article quotes Tao Gang, general manager of the Tianjin Long March Launch Vehicle Manufacturing Co. Ltd., as saying they were close to completing development of the Long March 7. That vehicle and the Long March 5 are expected to replace current versions of the Long March rocket. Both will be launched from China's new Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island.
The first Long March 5 is expected to launch no later than 2016 according to the U.S. Department of Defense's 2015 annual China military power report. Similar in capability to the U.S. Delta IV Heavy, the 25-ton to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) vehicle will be used for a wide range of human and robotic earth-orbit and deep-space missions, including construction of a 60-ton LEO space station. The smaller Long March 7 will be used for cargo missions to the space station according to the China Daily report.
Tianjin Long March Launch Vehicle Manufacturing Co. Ltd. is a subsidiary of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology. Chinese television CCTV broadcast a short segment in March showing the Long March 5 at the Tianjin facility.
Writing in Aerospace America in September 2013, Jim Oberg described the Tianjin facility based on information published by China's Xinhua news agency. It covers 313.33 hectares with a 220,000 cubic meter assembly building for "launch vehicles, space stations, and 'special equipment' (presumably other large satellites)." Phase One of construction was completed in February 2012, according to Oberg.
Chinese authorities are still investigating the cause of the explosions at a warehouse in Tianjin, a port city about 70 miles (110 kilometers) from Beijing, that killed more than 100 people and injured hundreds others. Where the Long March production and test facilities are located relative to the site of the explosions is not clear.
Speaking at a campaign rally in New Hampshire yesterday, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said the idea of sending people to Mars is "wonderful," but "I want to rebuild our infrastructure first." His demeanor suggested an even deeper skepticism.
Trump was holding a campaign rally at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, New Hampshire when a young man who identified himself as a NASA Space Technology Research Fellow in a joint MIT-Harvard Medical School program asked about putting humans on Mars. He noted that Trump complains that the United States needs to have victories again, and in the aerospace industry "one of our biggest victories was putting man on the Moon."
Trump agreed with that, but when the NASA Fellow continued with his question -- what did Trump think about sending humans to Mars -- Trump's opinion was displayed more by his body language and tone of voice than his words. Shrugging and grimacing, he replied --
"Honestly, I think it's wonderful. I want to rebuild our infrastructure first. OK? I think it's wonderful." He then looked into the audience while pointing at the questioner dismissively.
The event was recorded by C-SPAN and the exchange can be seen in its entirety beginning at 47:29.
Trump is the latest of the presidential candidates to express views about the space program.
On the campaign trail so far, the space program has come up only in media interviews or town hall meetings like Trump's. No space questions were asked at the first Republican presidential primary debates on August 6, either at the 5:00 pm ET "happy hour" debate or the 9:00 pm ET main debate.
During the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, candidate Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House, laid out bold goals for the space program, and he and Mitt Romney responded to questions about the space program in one of the televised debates.
Orbital ATK revealed today that it has purchased a second Atlas V rocket to launch a Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). The company already planned to use Atlas V for a December launch and now will use a second in 2016 along with two or three launches of its revamped Antares rocket. An October 2014 Antares failure was the first of three failed cargo launches to ISS in less than a year that disrupted cargo deliveries, although NASA insists that U.S. ISS operations are unaffected.
The company plans to use an Atlas V to launch Cygnus in December 2015, the first Cygnus launch under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA since the October 2014 failure. Today's press release said only "early December," but NASA officials have publicly stated that the launch is scheduled for December 3. Orbital ATK refers to it as the "OA-4" mission. Two successful Antares/Cygnus CRS cargo missions were flown by Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orb-1 and Orb-2) before its merger with ATK earlier this year. The third in the series, Orb-3, was the failure.
In 2016, Orbital ATK will carry out "at least three more CRS missions: two (or possibly three) will be launched by Antares rockets ... and one more will be launched aboard Atlas V," according to Orbital ATK Space Systems President Frank Culbertson.
The Antares return-to-flight mission is expected in the first quarter of 2016 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island, VA. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said last week that repairs to the MARS facility, which is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and operated by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, are almost complete. Virginia Space, Orbital ATK and NASA are equally sharing the $15 million cost of the repairs. McAuliffe said that a new arrangement has been negotiated with Orbital ATK regarding repair costs and insurance coverage for future missions.
The October 2014 Antares failure was caused by one of the Russian NK33 rocket engines (refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ26) and Orbital ATK is replacing them with a different Russian engine, RD-181. Two engines are needed for each Antares rocket and Orbital ATK President and CEO David Thompson said during an investor teleconference last week that the engines were delivered in June and are being integrated into the Antares airframe now. The retrofitted Antares will roll out to the pad in January for a "hot fire" engine test, Thompson added, although today's announcement said it could take place late this year or in January. No announcement was made about exactly when the launch is planned, but March has been mentioned elsewhere.
Under the original CRS contract, Orbital ATK and its competitor, SpaceX, are each required to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016. NASA awarded extensions to both companies' contracts to cover launches in 2017. Thompson said last week that Orbital ATK was awarded two of them. Orbital ATK has upgraded the Cygnus capsule so it can carry more mass so it anticipates that it can meet its contractual requirements using fewer launches than previously planned.
NASA and its ISS partners are recovering from a spate of cargo launch failures: the October 28, 2014 Antares failure, a Russian Progress M-27M failure on April 28, 2015, and a SpaceX CRS-7 failure on June 28, 2015. The Russians have since successfully launched another Progress. A date for SpaceX Falcon 9 launches to resume has not been announced.
The next cargo mission to the ISS will be Japan's HTV5, which is scheduled for August 16, 2015. Europe no longer launches its ATV cargo vehicle, so Japan's HTV, Russia's Progress, and the two U.S. capsules -- Orbital ATK's Cygnus and SpaceX's Dragon -- are the four vehicles used to deliver cargo at the present time.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said today that in this changing launch services environment, the Air Force needs to take it slow in planning competitive launch services procurements before committing to something without adequate knowledge.
The GAO looked at the Air Force's plan to acquire future launch services under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Since 2006, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) has been a monopoly in providing EELV launches using the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, but with the certification of SpaceX to offer EELV launch services in the future, a competitive environment has reemerged.
GAO explains that the Air Force currently acquires launch services from ULA under a cost-reimbursement, rather than fixed price, contract. The cost-reimbursement contract requires ULA to give the Air Force cost and performance data that the Air Force can use to monitor contractor performance and identify risks that can affect schedule and cost. In the new competitive environment, however, the Air Force plans to move to firm fixed price (FFP) contracts where that data will not be available. That creates a good news, bad news situation where the price for launches may be less with FFP contracts, but the Air Force will have "significantly less insight into program costs and performance." GAO also worries that FFP contracts will not give the Air Force the flexibility it needs to change launch schedules, noting that "satellite delays have historically been an issue..."
Added to that, the future of the competitive launch services industry is uncertain and "the ability of the domestic industry to sustain two or more providers in the long-term, while desirable, is unclear."
The recommendation, therefore, is to move slowly and not make commitments to future acquisition rounds until the Air Force has gained experience with the first one, now underway. The Air Force should "use an incremental approach to the next acquisition strategy until data is available to make an informed decision."
In a letter included as an appendix to the GAO report, DOD concurred: "The Air Force is implementing a phased approach to its EELV efforts, to include awarding launch services on a case by case basis."
GAO did the study in response to a congressional requirement in the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act.
Events of Interest