Lawmakers question USAF's efforts to foster competition in the launch market
As and . separately propose alternatives for the Pentagon to the United Launch Alliance's (ULA) rocket monopoly, some lawmakers fear the U.S. Air Force will throw too much support to the incumbent contractor, freezing out new entrants to the market.
The chairman and the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence even go so far in an Aug. 2 letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as to call the Air Force's launch capability contract with ULA—worth billions of dollars annually to pay for the launch workers and support engineers—an “infrastructure subsidy.”
Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.), chairman and ranking Democrat, respectively, call on the Air Force to eliminate this contract. That move would cut funding for the personnel supporting launch activities for ULA. Legislators have long complained that having two contracts—the launch capabilities contract for infrastructure and the launch services contract covering fixed-price buys of the rockets—obscures the real cost of the launch enterprise. Some this year are calling for the Air Force to combine these two into one comprehensive contract to provide a clearer picture of the true cost of launches.
At issue is the growing cost of launch since the government approved the merger ofand Lockheed's formerly separate launch businesses into the ULA joint venture. Lockheed's new venture also includes a launch vehicle of a different class, the Athena.
The price to boost satellites is going up in part owing to the inefficient procurement practice of buying only one rocket at a time. Also,'s decision to pull out of the launch market in favor of Russian boosters has driven the Pentagon's share of the launch infrastructure cost substantially higher.
The two House lawmakers are also asking that the Air Force limit its next block-buy of rocket purchases from ULA to three years; the service has been pursuing a buy of five years to take advantage of the economic order quantities. Air Force officials say they expect to finalize negotiations with ULA on this contract by next June.
In the meantime, the service is moving ahead with a “bridge contract” for launch capability services to support eight launches for ULA to cover near-term missions, including six for the Air Force, one for the Navy and one for the National Reconnaissance Office. “The bridge contract will only cover the capability to launch eight rockets . . . not the rockets themselves,” says an Air Force official; the boosters were purchased in fiscal 2011 but have been unused due to significant delays in satellite delivery times.
The Air Force is also pressing ahead with plans to certify new entrants into the market.(SpaceX) was the first to submit a statement of intent for certification, citing plans to certify the upgraded Falcon 9 rocket, which has yet to fly, within roughly two years.
Orbital, with its Antares, and Lockheed Martin, with the Athena, have subsequently submitted statements of intent for certification as well.
Once certified, the companies will not be guaranteed work; they will be able to compete for it. The near-term opportunity is for two missions:'s Deep Space Climate Observatory, on the manifest for a fiscal year 2014 launch, and the Space Test Program 2 satellite being built by , slated to be lofted the following year.
An Air Force official says the government is assessing bids for these launches. ULA is barred from competing for this work as the Air Force earmarked it to help new entrants garner certification credentials.
However, the manifest still calls for 46 launches during fiscal years 2013-17. “If a potential new entrant becomes certified during this period, we believe [rocket] cores above those awarded to ULA will be available for competition,” the Air Force official says. “Right now, ULA is the only certified provider for mission-critical[Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle] launches.”
The service is open to new rocket- makers, but “certification requires demonstrating a high-confidence launch vehicle through a record of launch successes combined with government insight into the technical details of the launch vehicle.”