U.S. Air Force Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, mounted a spirited defense of the GPS 3 program back in March, all but dismissing a just-released finding by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that the next-generation satellite navigation system was having cost growth and development problems.

“We are on schedule, on target with that program,” Shelton insisted during a meeting in Washington with reporters. “There is no question in my mind that that program is going extremely well. I understand from maybe a bean counter perspective that it may look like an increase but I don’t see it that way.”

Less than a month later came news that GPS 3 prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems forfeited a portion of its award fee on the program because of cost growth.

“We were right,” says Cristina Chaplain, the GAO’s senior bean counter for space and missile defense activities.

Only time will tell whether the GAO was also right in recommending that the Air Force hold off on a planned block buy of rockets under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program until it has a better handle on its likely cost. The Air Force is moving ahead with the block buy, although Chaplain is quick to point out that the service concurred with most of the findings in last fall’s report on the EELV program.

The GAO is working on a follow-on report that is expected in the coming weeks.

Chaplain spoke recently with Space News staff writer Titus Ledbetter III.


The GAO has said there is room for improvement in the way the Pentagon acquires the ground systems for its satellite programs. Is the message getting through?

Generally, we recommend the same kinds of best practices for all kinds of weapons acquisitions. Those are things like keeping requirements stable, having good insight into design before you move forward in certain periods of your development, accurately estimating costs and not taking on too-significant technology challenges within your acquisition program. We really feel like those practices need to be adopted on the ground side and the space side and we see them being adopted on the space side. We believe they are also being adopted on the ground, but unfortunately we are dealing with programs that are kind of old right now. But we are seeing some good practices being implemented, at least on the space side.


What are some areas of continuing concern?

The synchronization of the ground and the space is a big issue with us. We have seen a restrained appetite for trying to take on the big technological leaps, which is good, but we are also worried about the future and whether anybody is thinking about the next generation and how to advance technology. We don’t see a whole lot of planning on the science and technology side that is real strategic for space.


Were you satisfied with the Air Force’s response to your EELV report last fall?

We were encouraged by the actions that were being taken to address the knowledge gaps we identified in our earlier work. We still think it is important for the Air Force to ensure it has all of the knowledge it needs about suppliers and pricing and anything related to the contracts that we have pointed out before it does embark on the block buy strategy.


You’ve expressed concern about a lack of coordination across the U.S. federal agencies involved in space activity. Should the government reinstate the National Space Council or some other group to handle that task?

That is one path of getting there. We had a report about government-wide duplication issues that was issued last February. We brought this issue up and we suggested that there be some kind of authority established at the executive level, so that could take that form or some other form. We were a little flexible in how it could be done and we also recognize that it would take quite some time.


The GAO’s past annual assessments of NASA’s large-scale programs said most were not being managed according to the industry’s “best practices” standards. Has there been any improvement?

We have seen improvements. We have seen a lot being done on the cost and schedule estimating side and a lot being done in terms of getting more oversight at the management level. The smaller projects so far are having better outcomes. We need to see that sustained. We would also like to see more visibility into costs and other issues earlier in the programs. They can sometimes go three or four years without that kind of visibility, and we still are worried about the larger efforts like the James Webb Space Telescope because of the implications their problems can have for smaller programs.


Hasn’t that always been a problem? For example, did the Hubble Space Telescope have cost growth issues similar to what we’ve seen on Webb?

I think it is typical of flagship efforts going back quite a ways. If you read the GAO reports going way back you’ll see there has been a pattern. There were some differences in James Webb. They did recognize a few years into it that they were taking on considerable technology risks and it would behoove them to burn down that risk before engaging in a lot of extensive, wide-ranging acquisition activities. They did that, which was good. But there was still not a lot done in terms of phasing the funding and oversight and communications with the contractors.


Has the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) taken visible steps to reduce development and production concurrency following your report citing that as a major problem?

MDA generally agreed with our recommendations and outlined specific actions it was taking that should reduce concurrency. For example, MDA postponed resuming production of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system’s kill vehicle until the new design had successfully demonstrated its basic capability in a developmental flight test. It agreed to realign milestones for its new SM-3 [Standard Missile 3] Block 2B program. These were good steps, but we need to see them take root in decisions and plans as MDA will also be dealing with schedule and industrial base challenges that could lead to pressures to follow concurrent approaches. And there are some programs, such as Precision Tracking Space System and Aegis Ashore, we have concerns about.


One program that you cited for concurrency is the SM-3 Block 1B interceptor. What’s your reaction to the Block 1B’s second straight successful intercept test?

The test appears to be good news for MDA. Our concerns with the 1B related to plans to increase production without proving the 1B could work as intended. But, in responding to our report, the agency stated it would postpone production until fixes being made to the 1B were tested.


Is the MDA now ready to resume production?

No. As I understand it, more testing is needed to do that but the recent test puts them closer.


We’ve heard concerns that lawmakers can set the parameters of a GAO study in such a way as to predetermine the outcome. Your response?

We have a very, very standard way of looking at programs. All of our criteria are based on 10 years of work on commercial best practices, for example. We look at technology development in a very defined way: design stability, requirements, funding, cost estimating and schedule estimating. We have very standard methodologies for looking at all of that. So it would be very difficult to even mess with the scope and methodology for a detailed systems review, or when it comes to looking at an acquisition strategy like EELV. We know from years and years of experience what kinds of knowledge need to be there at the onset of a program.