GAO Reports on AF New Entrant Certification Guide
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has published a set of slides it used to brief Members of Congress on how the Air Force is implementing its New Entrant Certification Guide for launch service providers.
The GAO review was required by the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act. Congress has been strongly encouraging the Air Force to enable new launch service providers ("new entrants") like SpaceX to compete for launches of national security payloads. Currently the United Launch Alliance (ULA) with its Atlas 5 and Delta IV rockets -- called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) -- is the only company certified to conduct those launches for the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
The Air Force issued a New Entrant Certification Guide and the GAO was tasked by Congress to review it to determine how the Air Force plans to implement it and what the new entrants think of it.
GAO noted that the Air Force, NASA, and NRO are each determining for themselves when certification has been achieved, meaning that duplication of efforts is a possibility. GAO also found that the Air Force has added prerequisites for certifying new entrants that are not in the guide "such as an approved implementation plan and a cooperative research and development agreement."
The new entrants are "generally satisfied" with the Air Force's implementation of the Guide so far, but "identified several challenges to certification, as well as perceived advantages afforded" to ULA. One challenge, for example, is having a sufficient number of launch opportunities to be certified. Another is that the new entrants must be able to launch 20,000 pounds to low Earth orbit from Air Force launch facilities rather than facilities they already use.
The GAO slides also provide a useful, concise summary of the evolution of the EELV program since it began in 1995. GAO says that the most recent independent cost estimate of that program through 2030 is "close to $70 billion."
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