Members of Congressional delegations from Alabama and Colorado have written to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta about their concerns regarding potential competition for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) missions, Space News reported this week. Those launches are currently performed by the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 vehicles from United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin headquartered in Colorado that builds those rockets in Decatur, Alabama. Although those vehicles have been highly successful in launching primarily US government (civil and military) payloads, concerns about increasing EELV launch costs have led to efforts to open up the EELV program to new entrants, in particular SpaceX.
The members whose signed the letter (specific names aren’t mentioned in the article, and the full text of the letter isn’t available) are concerned that bringing in companies that have shorter track records than ULA could jeopardize national security. “Newly developed space launch systems do not yet meet most government mission needs, have not flown any significant complex payloads, and are still aspiring to launch vehicles at a rate of one or more per year,” a portion of the letter quoted in the Space News article states. “While new entrants may someday possess such a capability to compete, we must not put the payload and schedule of our national security space assets in jeopardy in a process that also requires the taxpayer to underwrite the development of rockets and engines which have not yet flown.”
The alternative to new entrants would be for a “block buy” of EELV rockets from ULA spanning several years, which would lower per-unit costs over buying them on a year-by-year basis but could also lock out new entrants during the course of that contract. ULA received a $1.17-billion contract from the Air Force last Friday to cover EELV activities for fiscal year 2013.