On July 26, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released an excellent follow-on report on the Pentagon’s primary satellite launching program, “Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle: DOD Is Addressing Knowledge Gaps in Its New Acquisition Strategy.”
In the July 30 issue of Space News, you report that the GAO indicates that the Air Force has postponed award of a large sole-source block buy from United Launch Alliance for at least one year, utilizing a bridge contract in the meantime to ensure continuity of operations [“Report: Air Force To Delay EELV Block Buy,” page 3]. This decision is a prudent one for several reasons.
First, even though the Air Force has ordered Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) resources “one at a time,” as reported in the GAO study, the facts are that of the existing EELV “Buy 1” through “Buy 3” orders still outstanding (many of which were originally awarded in 1998), there is currently a backlog of over 35 EELV cores/vehicles yet to be delivered or launched. Given the current planned rate of eight launches a year, that means we currently have four years of inventory on hand. Surely there is no urgency to “lock up” four or five more years of stock while so many questions about cost and price identified by GAO still exist. Buying now would mean that all choices for launch will have been made until 2020 or beyond and any opportunity to significantly reduce launch costs will be gone for almost two presidential terms.
Second, in 2013 we will inaugurate a new Congress and a new or re-elected president. In either case, a whole new cast of characters in critical decision roles will likely be in place. Given the critical stakes for American access to space, as well outlined by the GAO, those new decision-makers deserve the opportunity to assess the entire launch and access to space issue and to make decisions that will take effect during their terms in office.
Some of us in the space community would prefer to see more comprehensive “national” space transportation policy, management and decision-making, but that is not the root cause for caution. It is cost, competition and contract management, as the GAO outlined. Air Force officials have appeared to make a prudent decision for the entire U.S. space effort, one that we should wholeheartedly support.