While the Senate gears up for a joint hearing Wednesday on space access, some members of the House Armed Services Committee used a July 10 hearing on Defense Department acquisitions issues to grill a top Pentagon official on the topic of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV)
“We don’t seem to be as encouraging of competition in this area as I would think we should be,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), ranking member of the full committee, referring to the EELV program and the “block buy” contract the Air Force awarded United Launch Alliance (ULA). “It seems to be an incumbent bias there that is robbing us, in some instances, of innovation from new companies and new technologies.”
Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, told Smith that he supported competition, and arranged the block buy to set aside a number of launches, originally 14, that would be competed. “Since then, because of a combination of budget changes, and increased lifetime of some of our satellites, some of those launches have slipped,” he acknowledged. “We still plan to compete them, we’re just going to compete them later than we originally intended.” He also noted that one of those 14 did move into the ULA block buy “to fulfill our side of the contract.”
Kendall also said that the Defense Department has been “aggressive” into bringing SpaceX into the EELV program through the ongoing certification process. (A day after the hearing, SpaceX announced that its first three Falcon 9 v1.1 launches had been certified as successful by the Air Force, although the service is not expected to complete the overall certification process until late this year or early next year.) He also reiterated previous guidance that would allow companies like SpaceX to compete “if they’re on the path to certification.”
Smith suggested, though, that the block buy contract locked out SpaceX from competing for Air Force launch contracts. “‘Locked them out’ is not really the intent,” Kendall responded. “The intent is to do launches with ULA than only ULA can do.”
Later in the hearing, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) asked Kendall about competition, focusing on why the Air Force could not use launch providers other than “UAL” (as Johnson frequently called United Launch Alliance) when NASA and commercial companies can. Kendall reiterated his support for competition. Kendall noted that security and reliability were the key reasons that the DOD, for now, used only ULA for its launches.
Kendall also emphasized again his support for competition in launch services. “We are going to be, very soon, releasing an RFP for our first competitive bids for launch,” he said. “That’s an FY15 acquisition.”