GAO: Launch Services New Entrant Certification Guide

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Full report

What GAO Found

The Air Force based its Guide on existing NASA policy and procedures with respect to payload risk classification and launch vehicle certification. Payloads are classified based in part on factors such as national significance, payload complexity and cost, and are assigned a risk tolerance level accordingly. The Air Force, NASA, and NRO are working to coordinate and share information to facilitate launch vehicle certification efforts; however, each agency will determine for itself when certification has been achieved. As a result, some duplication and overlap of efforts could occur. The Air Force has also added other prerequisites to certification for new entrants that are not captured within the Guide, such as an approved implementation plan and a cooperative research and development agreement. According to the Air Force, these agreements are legal mechanisms intended to enable data sharing between the Air Force and new entrants, while protecting the interests of both.

While potential new entrants stated that they are generally satisfied with the Air Force's efforts to implement the Guide, they identified several challenges to certification, as well as perceived advantages afforded to the incumbent launch provider. For example, new entrants stated that they face difficulty in securing enough launch opportunities to become certified. The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics recently directed the Air Force to make available up to 14 launches for competition to new entrants, provided they demonstrate the required number of successful launches and provide the associated data in time to compete. If new entrants have not completed their final certification launch in time to compete, the newly-available launches will likely be awarded to the incumbent provider. New entrants stated they must also respond to changes in Air Force requirements that could impact their launch vehicle design and certification schedules. Air Force officials noted their intent to work with new entrants that may be affected by recent changes. Additionally, new entrants consider some Air Force requirements to be overly restrictive; for example, new entrants must be able to launch a minimum of 20,000 pounds to low earth orbit from specific Air Force launch facilities (versus facilities the new entrants currently use.) The Air Force stated that 20,000 pounds represents the low end of current EELV lift requirements, and that alternate launch sites are not equipped for the Air Force's national security launches. Further, new entrants noted that the incumbent provider receives ongoing infrastructure and development funding from the government, an advantage not afforded to the new entrants, and that historical criteria for competition in the EELV program were more lenient. The Air Force acknowledged that criteria for competition are different, reflective of differences in the acquisition environment.

Why GAO Did This Study

This letter is in response to a House report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (Pub. L. No. 112-479 (2013)), which directed that we report to the congressional defense committees by February 1, 2013 with a review and analysis of the implementation of the Air Force Launch Services New Entrant Certification Guide (Guide). In 2011, the Air Force, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), implemented a coordinated strategy to certify new entrants to provide launch capability on Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV)-class launch vehicles. New entrants are launch companies that are working toward certifying their launch vehicle capabilities so that they may be allowed to compete with the current sole-source contractor for government launches. Launch vehicle certification is necessary to ensure that only proven, reliable launch vehicles will be used to launch government satellites. Currently only one provider is certified to provide EELV-class launch capability for government launches. To execute this strategy for national security space launches, the Air Force developed the Guide, which serves as a risk-based approach that the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center is using to certify the launch vehicle capabilities of potential new entrant launch providers. In response to the mandate, we addressed: (1) How the Air Force plans to implement its New Entrant Certification Guide, and (2) New entrant perspectives on becoming certified under the New Entrant Certification Guide.

For more information, please contact Cristina Chaplain at (202) 512-4841 or on chaplainc@gao.gov.

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