WASHINGTON — United Launch Alliance (ULA) Chief Executive Michael Gass challenged a key assertion in a U.S. government report that urged the U.S. Air Force to rethink plans to proceed with a bulk purchase of satellite launchers next year, a recommendation that has found a receptive ear in Congress.
While expressing support for Air Force efforts to comply with the recommendations of the recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, Gass said the congressional watchdog agency was mistaken in suggesting the service has insufficient information to move forward with its block buy.
“Without attempting to preview anything the Air Force might say officially, on its face this does not appear to be an accurate characterization,” Gass said in a written response to questions. “The Air Force has significant contracting expertise at all levels. Moreover, ULA provides every bit of data required by the Government.”
Under the block buy strategy, designed to curb costs on the Pentagon’s primary satellite launching program, the Air Force intends to order as many as 50 Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets combined over a five-year period. Denver-based ULA, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, builds and operates the rockets under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.
The GAO report was the subject of one of two launch-related amendments to the Senate version of the defense authorization bill, both introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. House and Senate conferees have yet to finalize the legislation, which will set overall spending limits for the Pentagon next year.
One of McCain’s amendments would require the Air Force to detail its compliance with the recommendations of the GAO report in the package of information that accompanies its 2013 budget request. The GAO made several recommendations, most aimed at strengthening program oversight, and warned that pursuing the block buy strategy with insufficient information could lead the Air Force to buy more launches at higher prices than necessary.
In his written statement, Gass said ULA is supportive of Air Force efforts to address the GAO’s concerns and that many had been resolved by the time the report was released in October. He said ULA had no issue with McCain’s other amendment, which would change the procurement designation of the satellite launching program from sustainment to major acquisition, thereby subjecting it to tougher scrutiny.
Gass, whose customers include NASA, also urged the civil space agency to move more swiftly in its selection of a commercial vehicle for ferrying astronauts to the international space station. Four companies — Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) — are studying commercial crew taxi concepts with NASA money awarded earlier this year. Atlas 5 is the launcher of choice for three of the companies, the exception being SpaceX, which plans to use its own rocket.
Noting that Congress gave NASA less than half of the $850 million it requested next year for commercial crew development, Gass said the agency needs to make a quick selection of at least one concept. “Atlas 5 is the choice of three of the four teams, has flown successfully many, many times, and could achieve human-rating in relatively short order,” he said in his statement. “We believe Atlas 5 to be the most logical choice to plug the human spaceflight gap in the shortest order.”
Gass’ comments followed a Dec. 6 ULA press briefing in Washington during which he addressed the budgetary constraints the nation faces and defended his 5-year-old company, whose virtual monopoly in launching U.S. national security satellites continues to draw fire from Capitol Hill. SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., builder of the Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket that has made two successful launches to date, is aggressively courting Pentagon business with a bigger vehicle dubbed Falcon Heavy.
Gass said more competition would require unnecessary costs to duplicate launch infrastructure. “The market size does not justify increasing the nation’s infrastructure,” he said.
If a competitor to ULA could lower launch costs for the U.S. government, “I support that,” Gass said. So far, there is no evidence a competitor would reduce launch costs, he said.
SpaceX says its Falcon rockets are cheaper than the Atlas 5 and Delta 4.
ULA has tried to control costs by reducing staff and facilities, eliminating excessive tests, putting cost incentives into contracts with other companies and “leveraging outside expertise,” Gass said.
Government budget watchdogs have helped to ensure ULA spends its money appropriately, he said. “I think we are the most reviewed program in the country,” Gass said.