GAO’s annual review of DoD programs raises concerns on space launch, missile warning satellites

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GAO: A U.S. produced rocket engine under development for ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle is experiencing technical challenges

WASHINGTON — Technical challenges in the development of United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket could prevent the Defense Department from ending its reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine by 2022 as required by Congress, the Government Accountability Office said in a report published June 8.

National security space launch was one of 107 military programs reviewed by the watchdog agency in its 2021 annual report on the performance of major defense acquisitions. 

GAO said delays in the development of Vulcan’s main engine could make it difficult to comply with legislation that bans DoD from procuring launches on RD-180-powered vehicles beyond 2022.

DoD for decades launched satellites on ULA’s workhorse rocket the Atlas 5 — which uses the RD-180 engine to power its first stage. Congress in 2016 directed the Pentagon to stop using launch vehicles powered by Russian engines and only allowed DoD to award contracts for Atlas 5 launches through 2022.

DoD in August 2020 awarded ULA and SpaceX five-year launch service contracts for approximately 34 launches starting in 2022 and continuing through 2027. For this contract ULA bid its new Vulcan rocket which uses the domestically produced BE-4 engine made by Blue Origin.

“A U.S. produced rocket engine under development for ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle is experiencing technical challenges related to the igniter and booster capabilities required and may not be qualified in time to support first launches beginning in 2021,” said GAO.

National security space launch program officials told GAO that Vulcan “remains on track to support first launches and certification in 2021,” the report said. “However, if ULA cannot complete engine qualification before the 2021 flight certification, the program might continue to rely on ULA’s Atlas 5 to support ULA’s 2022 launches, despite a nearly $2.9 billion investment in new launch system development.”

ULA last month confirmed that Vulcan’s first launch will be pushed from 2021 into 2022 due to customer payload delays. Blue Origin said it expects to deliver the first flight-ready BE-4 engine later this year. Vulcan has to successfully complete two orbital flights before it’s certified for national security launch. The company said it reached an agreement with the U.S. Space and Missile Systems Center to use the Atlas 5 to launch what would have been Vulcan’s first national security mission.

Missile warning satellites  

In its assessment of defense programs, GAO also raised concerns about the U.S. Space Force’s Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared satellites, an estimated $12 billion constellation intended to provide initial warning of a ballistic or tactical missile launch anywhere on the globe. 

The current program includes three geosynchronous orbit satellites made by Lockheed Martin and two polar orbit satellites made by Northrop Grumman. 

GAO said the Space Force will have difficulties meeting its target launch date in 2025 for the launch of the first GEO satellite and complete the launch of all five spacecraft by 2030.

“According to the program office, the program has 17 critical technologies, seven of which are immature,” GAO said. “Most of the immature technologies are related to the payload.”

The program faces significant challenges in developing and integrating new technologies, said the report. “Driven by the 2025 launch requirement and minimal schedule margin, the program is concurrently developing mission payload engineering and flight units. Such concurrency raises the risk of schedule delays because issues identified during engineering unit testing will necessitate corrective flight unit rework.”

In addition, the ground segment — developed under a separate program — may not be ready when the first satellite is delivered, the report said. “To mitigate this risk, the program is designing the GEO satellites to integrate into the existing ground architecture.”