Congress, Pentagon

DOD official defends EELV block buy, endorses launch competition

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.”

17 comments to DOD official defends EELV block buy, endorses launch competition

  • Musk is trying to rewrite contracts that were made at a time when he wasn’t qualified to compete. I am still skeptical that the F9 can fly the complex mission profiles the DOD requires. His litigation will fail.

    • Coastal Ron

      amightywind said:

      Musk is trying to rewrite contracts…

      The article is not about Elon Musk, but members of Congress that are concerned about the lack of competition for launch services:

      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

      I am still skeptical that the F9 can fly the complex mission profiles the DOD requires.

      How unusual for you… ;-)

      His litigation will fail.

      Maybe, but as I’ve advocated previously SpaceX may know their chances of success in the courts is slim, but as is obvious in Congress the visibility this court case has brought is having the intended action – an open discussion on how to save the U.S. Taxpayer from over-paying for services.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      “Musk is trying to rewrite contracts that were made at a time when he wasn’t qualified to compete.”

      The issue isn’t whether the USAF certified the new entrant a few months ago or today. The issue is whether USAF should be locking a couple handfuls of DOD payloads, tens of billions of dollars in the DOD budget, and the taxpayer into a five-year block buy when a new entrant will be certified to compete by early next year, at the latest.

      Especially when the provider under the block buy is much more expensive than the new entrant.

      And especially when the provider under the block buy is dependent on an engine from a foreign supplier that may get cut off for multiple reasons.

      “I am still skeptical that the F9 can fly the complex mission profiles the DOD requires.”

      Cassiope (polar orbit), SES-8 (GEO), Thaicom 6 (GEO), yesterday’s OG2 deployment, and the NRO Director are all at odds with your “skepticism”.

      • Egad

        yesterday’s OG2 deployment

        Which (thanks to a poster on Rand’s site for pointing this out) used a lofted trajectory/direct insertion flight profile.

        Perhaps SpaceX could do a yaw-steering/dogleg launch to get to a Molniya orbit to round out the picture for Big Black, but they seem to be doing pretty well so far.

        • That’s kinda what I’m suggesting. They will need to do multiple restarts and direct insertion of spacecraft to orbit, not just to TO, dispose of the upper stage, etc.

          • Dick Eagleson

            SpaceX already plans to recover upper stages for reuse, though they probably won’t be doing that for at least another two or three years.

      • Ad Astra

        “Cassiope (polar orbit), SES-8 (GEO), Thaicom 6 (GEO), yesterday’s OG2 deployment, and the NRO Director are all at odds with your “skepticism”.”

        Cassiope: Contracted launch date 9/2008, Actually launched 9/29/2013 (5 years late) due to Falcon 1 failures and SpaceX decision to remanifest to Falcon 9.

        Thaicom 6: Contracted launch date 6/2013, Actual launch date 1/6/2014 (6 months late)

        OG2: Contracted launch date 8/2010, Actual launch date 7/14/2014 (4 years late)

        Part of being mission capable is maintaining some semblance of a schedule and launch cadence. While civilian customers might be fine with delays in exchange for low prices, it is doubtful that DoD and NRO would look kindly on a launch provider that routinely launched their assets half a decade late.

        • Dark Blue Nine

          “Part of being mission capable is maintaining some semblance of a schedule and launch cadence… it is doubtful that DoD and NRO would look kindly on a launch provider that routinely launched their assets half a decade late.”

          It took Atlas V nearly five years (2002-7) to get its launch rate above two per year. It took Delta IV about four years (2002-6) to get its launch rate above two per year and then its launch rate nosedived to one launch over two years (2007-8). This is not a knock against Atlas V or Delta IV. But if anyone thinks that a slow ramp up in launches is a phenomenon peculiar to Falcon 9, they’re woefully ignorant of this business.

          And despite pitiful launch rates for nearly a half decade, DOD committed billions and billions of dollars of national security satellites to Atlas V and Delta IV when they were new.

          It’s asinine for the USAF apply a double standard to Falcon 9 now and keep it out of competition for most national security launches for a half-decade when that’s not what the USAF did with Atlas V and Delta IV.

          It’s even more asinine when the incumbent launchers cost so much more to the DOD budget and taxpayer and are so much more vulnerable to foreign supply chains than the new entrant.

          • Dick Eagleson

            I hold no brief for ULA, Lord knows, but I gotta be fair too. The Atlas V didn’t have quite that sort of history. Its first five missions were commercial comsat deployments. But four of its next five missions were U.S. gov’t. payloads: two deep space probes for NASA, a multi-milsat mission for USAF and a paired spooksat mission for NRO. The remaining mission of the second five was another commercial comsat. So Atlas V could have been certified by the current rules, but I don’t for a minute think USAF put ULA through anything like the bureaucratic colonoscopy SpaceX is currently being subjected to.

            Of course, the Delta IV did have exactly the sort of launch history you describe. Its first launch was a commercial comsat but the next nine were all U.S. Gov’t. payloads: three weathersats – one for USAF and two for NOAA, two military comsats for USAF, a missile warning bird for USAF, two spooksats for NRO and a partially failed mission for USAF that put two birds in the wrong orbits. So, yeah, the Delta IV sure got off to a fast start launching those big expensive milsats and even managed to screw up a couple of them by the time it had flown the same number of missions as SpaceX has flown F9’s to-date. No three-successful-missions-and-a-year-of-close-inspections-and-paperwork-before-you-get-“certified”-to-bid nonsense either. Good thing, too, for ULA. Delta IV certainly didn’t meet the current certification criteria when it got to launch its first milsat.

        • Dick Eagleson

          Ad Astra,

          Falcon 1 failures were not a factor in the decisions of either CASSIOPE’s owner (MDA, if I recall correctly) or Orbcomm. Falcon 1’s failures had been followed by two successful missions. CASSIOPE and the OG2 birds were both originally contracted to use the Falcon 1 or 1e. The lack of enough other prospective payloads in this size class in the mid and late 2000’s led to SpaceX cancelling that rocket as well as the intermediate Falcon 5 and going directly to Falcon 9. SpaceX offered very attractive rates for switching over to the much bigger new rocket. I believe CASSIOPE was launched for the original Falcon 1 price, or possibly less, and the OG2 birds were the first of two launches that Orbcomm is said to have contracted to pay a combined total of $43 million for. That’s at least modestly cheaper than what six Falcon 1 or 1e missions would have cost. So these two situations are not typical. Once the second Orbcomm OG2 launch is accomplished, I don’t think SpaceX has any more Falcon 1 legacy to work off. More to the point, both legacy Falcon 1 customers are satisfied with SpaceX’s service.

          The Thaicomm 6 launch delay falls well within the fat part of the bell-shaped curve for GEO comsat launches. SpaceX’s launch of an SES GEO comsat preceding Thaicomm 6 also had delays. Ariane 5, the leader in this segment, at least for now, always has to find a pair of payloads they can launch together because their price is so high. One of the paired birds on each such mission pretty routinely gets delayed and holds up its taxi-sharing partner too. Such schedule delays are often at least as lengthy as the Thaicomm 6 mission you cited. And they are chronic to a point that this has become a significant bone of contention between
          Arianespace and their customers. The aerospace trade press has run numerous stories on this topic.

          ILS has scheduling problems that derive from the poor reliability of the Proton rocket they employ. Every time one of these fails, even if the mission was, as it usually is when this happens, a Russian government launch and not a commercial one arranged by ILS, no more Protons can be launched until the investigating board has finished its work. Such multi-month delays have occurred numerous times and twice in the past year. New launch dates for payloads delayed by the most recent such failure have just been announced, I believe.

          Nor is ULA magically exempt from delays, though, in fairness, USAF and NRO can be a bit mercurial about schedules; witness the seemingly endless churn in what missions the ULA block buy will actually cover and the delay, possibly by years, of missions to put several new Block 3 GPS birds up. At least for now, three Atlas V’s are on the SpaceflightNow mission manifest for launch within the next 60 days. One of these, a commercial imaging bird, is said to have been delayed from “mid-2014″ which might be anywhere up to a month or two. No info about the cause of the delay is given so it might be that the slippage is payload- rather then launch vehicle-related. Of course some of the first Orbcomm OG2 mission delays were payload-related also.

          Sure SpaceX needs to both ramp up its launch tempo and come closer to routinely hitting its marks. But it’s not like SpaceX has a uniquely awful mission slippage record. The other major players in satellite launch services have had their share of delays too.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      “Musk is trying to rewrite contracts that were made at a time when he wasn’t qualified to compete.”

      The issue isn’t whether USAF and Aerospace Corp. got their collective act in gear to certify the new entrant in time for the competition. The issue is whether USAF should commit a couple dozen-plus DOD payloads and tens of billions of DOD dollars to a block buy for an incumbent for the next half-decade when USAF and Aerospace Corp. will be certifying the new entrant next year.

      Especially when the incumbent costs the taxpayer much more than the entrant.

      And especially when the incumbent is reliant on a foreign engine supply that is in danger of getting cut off for several reasons.

      “I am still skeptical that the F9 can fly the complex mission profiles the DOD requires.”

      CASSIOPE (polar), SES-8 (GEO), Thaicom 6 (GEO), OG2 (multiple LEO), Inmarsat (GEO heavy), and the NRO Director are all at odds with your “skepticism”.

    • Coastal Ron

      MORE REALITY said:

      Time for Space X to put up or shut up.

      ULA too. ;-)

    • Dick Eagleson

      If this bird is within the F9’s lift capacity and orbit envelope, I’m sure SpaceX will be in there with a bid. I’m curious why you apparently seem to think there is any doubt whatsoever about that.

  • Paul Scutts

    I feel so sorry for poor old ULA and USAF, they have had their sweetheart deals for so long they just don’t want the music to stop. Who cares about the American Taxpayer footing the bill, only SpaceX it seems to me.

  • Von Del

    ULA simply wants to maintain their monopoly. The original idea was maintaining reliability while lowering costs and an indigenous US capability.

    Costs have never been higher.

    There s no indigenous capability since the booster relies on Russian motors.

    Its time to reconsider what this monopoly has done to the nation’s capabilities.

  • vulture4

    Don’t forget the Russian launch technicians that have to support every classified DOD ATLAS launch. And the money that goes to RD Amross, the middleman that marks up the engine price by about 100%.

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>