GAO: U.S. To Spend Almost $44 Billion on Launches in 2014-2018

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. government is expected to spend nearly $44 billion on launch costs over the next five years, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released Sept. 9.

The number represents the first time the federal government has compiled how much it spends on launch, often a sticking point for members of Congress who ask for a total and complain the figures they do receive offer limited transparency and are obscured by separate budgets for the Defense Department and NASA.

“This information should help to inform plans to lower launch costs, increase competition, and invest in new programs,” the report reads. 

The largest part of launch costs from 2014 through 2018 will come from procurement, more than $28 billion, the report said. That includes about $12 billion for NASA — some $7 billion of which is expected to go toward the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket the agency is developing for manned, deep-space missions — and $16 billion for the Defense Department. 

The defense figures are similar to recent figures compiled for 2013. Classified information from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and reported by the Washington Post revealed the National Reconnaissance Office, which buys and operates the nation’s spy satellites, requested about $1.3 billion for launch costs in 2013, bringing the Defense Department’s total to about $2.8 billion for the year. 

“Because the agencies involved budget and account for their respective space launch efforts differently, the total governmentwide funding to support these activities is difficult to determine,” the report reads.

NASA’s costs for launch-related activities are expected to rise about 19 percent annually, according to the report, in large part to transfer crew and cargo to the international space station. The NASA figures also include the cost of launching the weather satellites it builds on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Members of Congress have long been concerned about launch costs. The GAO report was requested by a congressional panel not known for space oversight: the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigations, co-chaired by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).  

The Senate Appropriations Committee in its version of the 2014 defense spending bill wrote it “continues to be concerned by the lack of visibility in the funding requests to support the [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV] program, and again recommends that procurement funding be separated into one line for EELV launch services and a separate line for EELV launch capability and associated costs.”

The GAO’s Sept. 9 report, “Space: Defense and Civilian Agencies Request Significant Funding for Launch-Related Activities,” lays the foundation for several upcoming space-based studies from the GAO that will provide a baseline for an apples-to-apples comparison of launch costs in the future. One study, expected sometime in 2014, will likely include how the incumbent contractor, United Launch Alliance (ULA) of Denver, compares with the new entrants, including Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), for competitive launch contracts.

As part of its EELV program, the Air Force is negotiating the purchase, on a sole-source basis, of up to 36 rocket cores over five years from ULA. The service plans to competitively award an additional 14 missions to give new entrants such as SpaceX a chance to break into the national security launch market.

The EELV program’s projected costs have soared during the last decade, prompting lawmakers to call for competition in a business that has effectively been a ULA monopoly. The Air Force’s strategy for bringing down the program costs is a combination of buying in bulk from ULA and bringing in new entrants via competitively awarded missions.

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk has said the Falcon family of rockets can save the Pentagon more than a $1 billion per year in launch costs. 

Even with the introduction of competition, Cristina Chaplain, the GAO’s director of acquisition and sourcing management, said she expects that launch costs would not drop but rise at a slower rate.