The U.S. congressional defense oversight committees have been at the forefront in seeking to reduce the cost of launching national security satellites, and rightly so: These costs have soared in recent years for a variety of reasons, putting increased pressure on Pentagon budgets already under tremendous strain. It was therefore surprising that these committees earlier this year rejected a U.S. Air Force request for funds to study a key cost-cutting initiative: launching a new generation of GPS navigation satellites two at a time aboard Atlas 5 rockets.
GPS satellites traditionally have launched one at a time to medium Earth orbit. This wasn’t a problem in the not-too-distant past because the launch vehicle used was the medium-lift Delta 2, whose cost was in the $50 million to $60 million range. But the Delta 2 was phased out as the intermediate-class Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, developed under the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, entered into service in the early 2000s.
Both EELV rockets are perfectly capable of launching GPS satellites, but because of their size they are not the most economical solution. Those who have followed the EELV program throughout the years might recall that the requirement for a medium-lift vehicle was dropped before the prime contracts were awarded to Boeing and Lockheed Martin. At the time, it was assumed that their respective Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets would be born into a robust commercial market, which would keep their costs low enough that a bit of overkill in launching relatively small GPS satellites would be acceptable.
As everyone knows, however, the commercial market, propped up by unrealistic expectations amid the late 1990s telecom boom, began to collapse just as the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 became available. This forced Boeing and Lockheed Martin to merge the two programs — U.S. government demand alone was insufficient to support separate competitive production lines — creating a monopoly situation that does not properly incentivize cost-cutting innovation. The retirement of NASA’s space shuttle compounded the situation by leaving the merged company, United Launch Alliance, responsible for supporting a disproportionately large portion of the U.S. rocket-making industrial base.
Dual launches of the GPS 3 satellites now in development constitute one promising avenue for putting a dent in EELV program costs. The Air Force estimates that this option could save $50 million in per-satellite launch costs, which, given that the GPS constellation is maintained at roughly 30 satellites, could generate savings in the hundreds of millions of dollars over just a few years.
But this cannot come without some upfront investment. United Launch Alliance will have to develop a dual-launch adapter for the Atlas 5, for example, and perhaps make other tweaks to the vehicle. The Air Force and the company already have determined that dual launch is feasible, but are working to better understand the mission; the service requested a reprogramming of $20 million in 2012 funding for further studies.
Congress, however, rejected the reprogramming request for reasons that are not clear. It’s true that the dual-launch option will not yield immediate savings — the Air Force envisions a 2017 dual-launch debut with the fifth and sixth GPS 3 satellites — but this is true of almost any cost-cutting initiative that does not sacrifice capability. Lawmakers might see more-pressing near-term priorities for the $20 million in question, but if they truly are serious about reducing EELV launch costs the move was a shortsighted one.