A key U.S. congressional spending panel reduced funding for the Pentagon’s primary space launch vehicle program, and indicated that the military must make changes in the way it runs the program.

The House Appropriations Committee reduced the U.S. Air Force’s $936.5 million budget request for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program by $244 million in its version of the 2006 Defense Appropriations Act, which the committee approved June 13. The EELV program includes the Atlas 5 rockets built by Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., and the Delta 4 rockets built by Boeing Co. of Chicago. The Pentagon had awarded development contracts to both companies in the 1990s under the expectation that launch costs would be offset by a robust commercial launch market that did not materialize.

Lockheed Martin and Boeing announced last year that they planned to merge their launch operations, though the Federal Trade Commission has yet to approve the joint venture, which would be called United Launch Alliance.

In a report accompanying its version of the defense appropriations bill, the committee stated that it had cut the EELV budget request because the Air Force has yet to find “the proper balance of risk and return for the funds proposed to be spent for launch capability and infrastructure.”

With considerably fewer EELV launches each year than initially expected, the Air Force has to fund work that keeps the skills of engineers sharp to ensure high levels of reliability with the rockets, but has yet to find the proper balance between reliability and money spent, according to a congressional aide.

The committee also raised concern about the acquisition strategy for the next batch of EELV launches, known as Buy 3.

“The most troubling areas include cost accountability and the introduction of new competition,” the committee wrote in their report, which was distributed at a June 13 markup session.

The committee wants the Air Force to re-examine the way that money earned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing from commercial launches is factored into prices charged to the government for military launches, as well as the way that money earned from the Air Force affects prices that the companies charge for commercial launches, the aide said. Otherwise, the companies could be given an unfair advantage over new entrants to the launch market, the aide said.

The committee also wants the Air Force to negotiate EELV launch contracts with Boeing and Lockheed Martin through 2010 in bulk to take advantage of economies of scale. During that same time period, the committee also wants the Air Force to provide opportunities for new launch concepts by funding demonstration launches, according to the report that accompanied their version of the bill.

The committee’s reduction to the EELV budget request for 2007 also reflects the delay in two launches of GPS 2F satellites. The GPS 2F program, which is run by Boeing, has run into cost growth and schedule delays. Those problems have raised questions about the necessity of some of all the satellites on order, particularly since GPS spacecraft already in orbit are lasting longer than expected. In addition, a new generation of navigation satellites, called GPS 3, is planned to come online in 2013, according to the report.

The Air Force’s request of $140.5 million for GPS satellite purchases in 2007 is based on the Air Force’s previous plan to buy 18 GPS 2F satellites. T hat number was revised to 12 after the budget request was sent to Capitol Hill in February, causing the committee to slice $73.3 million from the request to adjust it accordingly, according to the report.

The report also recommended the Air Force reassess the need for GPS 2F satellites 10 through 12 due to the longevity of the current constellation and the 2013 target date for launching GPS 3.

The committee also directed the Air Force to make changes in its approach to the development of small satellites and rockets that launch on short notice, a program known as O perationally Responsive Space. The committee approved the Air Force’s request of $35.4 million for the Operationally Responsive Space program, but stated in the report that the Air Force’s plan to develop a partially reusable launcher was not in keeping with the definition of Operationally Responsive Space and should be funded under a separate account.

The committee moved $12 million of the $19.5 million requested for the hybrid launcher into a separate program account, and diverted the remainder of the funding to a classified effort that promises immediate capability, the aide said.

Meanwhile, the committee reduced the Pentagon’s $390.6 million request for the development of missile-tracking satellites by $67 million in order to delay the award of the prime contract to build an operational constellation.

The committee noted in the report that the Missile Defense Agency plans to use data from a two-satellite demonstration next year to develop the concept for the operational Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) constellation, and directed the agency to focus on sensor technology development in 2007 rather than award the prime contract to build the operational satellites.

Comments: jsinger@space.com