NASA OIG: Use More Minotaurs

SpaceX and other commercial launch providers will have more competition for lofting some of NASA’s science missions — courtesy of America’s nuclear arsenal.

NASA has agreed to consider using more ICBM-derived Minotaur IV boosters to launch medium-size missions after an investigation by the agency’s Inspector General found that the move could save a significant amount of money and hedge against delays in the availability of commercial alternatives.

In a report released today, the IG’s Office said NASA has been resisting the move because it could interfere with the development of other commercial alternatives. However, agency officials said they would include Minotaur IV for medium-size science missions after they were given a draft copy of the report. Minotaur IV was already in the mix for launching small payloads.

The IG’s Office found:

Our analysis shows that use of the Minotaur for certain NASA science missions offers significant savings when compared to the available commercially provided intermediate class launch vehicles cited in NASA’s report to Congress. Moreover, it also would be less expensive than SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which is still under development and not yet certified to carry NASA science missions. For example, if NASA used the Minotaur rather than Falcon 9 or the intermediate-class Atlas V for the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission scheduled for launch in November 2014, the Agency could save between $61 million and $156 million.

In response to this finding, NASA stated that use of the Minotaur for some of its science missions could have a negative impact on the domestic commercial rocket industry because it might discourage companies from entering the launch services market. However, as discussed above it is unlikely that reliable and competitively priced medium class launch vehicles will be available in time for the SMAP mission. Accordingly, while we appreciate the legal and policy reasons for promoting commercial launch providers, we believe that NASA should consider using the Minotaur as a launch vehicle for appropriate science missions until cost-effective and reliable commercial launch services are available.

The Minotaur boosters use solid-rocket motors recycled from retired ICBMs. Orbital Sciences Corporation of Virginia refurbishes the engines and launches the rockets, whose primary payloads have been supplied by the military.

NASA will use a Minotaur rocket to launch its Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE). The agency’s decision that the rocket met the requirements of the Commercial Space Act and National Security Presidential Directive-40, “U.S. Space Transportation Policy,” resulted in a protest from Musk’s SpaceX, which is marketing its new Falcon 1e and Falcon 9 vehicles:

The LADEE mission is a small, 284-kilogram satellite designed to orbit the Moon originally scheduled for a 2010 or 2011 launch. During its planning process, NASA evaluated a series of potential launch vehicles, including SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon 1e, and determined that the Minotaur launch vehicle best met NASA’s requirements. In October 2009, SpaceX filed a bid protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) claiming that the contract award to Orbital for the Minotaur violated the Commercial Space Act of 1998 because NASA unreasonably concluded that no cost-effective commercial launch services were available from U.S. providers. On February 1, 2010, GAO denied SpaceX’s protest, stating that NASA reasonably concluded that cost-effective commercial alternatives to the use of the Minotaur for the LADEE mission were not available. The LADEE mission is currently scheduled for launch in May 2013.

The IG report indicates that timing is a key issue. The U.S. Air Force has decided to stop using the medium-lift Delta II rocket in favor of the more powerful alternatives.  As a result, Delta II rockets will likely not be available to NASA after this year because of the cost involved in continuing to manufacture components. Atlas V rockets are more expensive than Minotaurs.

Meanwhile, the Falcon 9 and Taurus II rockets being developed by SpaceX and OSC under NASA’s COTS program will not be ready to carry NASA payloads for several years:

Although new medium-class launch vehicles are in development from commercial providers, NASA LSP officials anticipate the earliest these vehicles could complete the required NASA certification is between late 2013 and early 2014….

Although launch vehicles developed for ISS resupply missions may indeed be feasible options for science missions requiring medium-class launch vehicles, none of these vehicles has yet been certified and there is a significant risk that delays and technical issues will arise during the certification process that will prevent their certification in time for the SMAP mission currently scheduled for 2014.

The report found that up to 13 future medium-class missions could be launched by the Minotaur IV rocket, with significant cost savings to the space agency:

We estimate the average cost of using Minotaurs for these science missions, currently scheduled for launch from 2012 through 2020, to be $63 million per launch as compared with $141 million per launch using a Falcon 9 and $264 million per launch for an intermediate-class Atlas V. Accordingly, NASA could save an average of $78 million to $200 million per launch by using a Minotaur rather than a Falcon 9 or an Atlas V, respectively, for launches occurring through 2020.

The report is potentially good news for Florida, which is looking to bring Minotaur launches to Cape Canaveral. The state’s space agency, Space Florida, recently received funding from the Defense Department to planning the move. Minotaurs are currently launched from spaceports in Alaska, California and Virginia.

Excerpts of the report are reproduced below. The full report is here.

Review of NASA’S Acquisition of Commercial Launch Services
NASA Office of Inspector General
March 17, 2011

The Issue

Commercial U.S. launch services providers compete domestically and internationally for contracts to carry satellites and other payloads into orbit using unmanned, single-use vehicles known as expendable launch vehicles (ELVs). However, since the late 1990s the global commercial launch market has generally declined following the downturn in the telecommunications services industry, which was the primary customer of the commercial space industry. Given this trend, U.S. launch services providers struggling to remain economically viable have been bolstered by the Commercial Space Act of 1998 (Public Law 105-303), which requires NASA and other Federal agencies to plan missions and procure space transportation services from U.S. commercial providers to the maximum extent practicable.

In particular, the U.S. market for medium-class launch vehicles, which are suited for many NASA science missions, has suffered from lack of demand and foreign competition. New launch vehicles in this class are currently under development as part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program, and NASA hopes to use these vehicles to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) on a commercially competitive basis. Although one such vehicle, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation’s (SpaceX) Falcon 9, had successful test flights in June 2010 and December 2010, neither it nor any of the other vehicles currently under development are likely to be ready to launch NASA’s science missions until late 2013 or early 2014. Consequently, until that time NASA faces limited domestic availability of medium-class launch vehicles for its science missions, a situation exacerbated by the Department of Defense’s (DOD) decision to stop using the Delta II – the medium-class vehicle that has been NASA’s launch vehicle of choice for nearly 60 percent of its science missions over the last decade. Moreover, without orders from DOD there is not enough demand for medium-class launch vehicles to sustain most domestic launch services providers.

For the past decade, NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) Office has acquired commercial launch services using firm-fixed-price indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contracts under an overarching NASA Launch Services (NLS) contract initially awarded in June 2000 that expired on June 30, 2010. Pursuant to these contracts, U.S. service providers integrate, test, and launch NASA and NASA-sponsored payloads into orbit. Using these NLS contracts, NASA has launched science missions such as Kepler and the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST). Kepler is a NASA mission designed to survey the Milky Way Galaxy to detect and characterize Earth-size and smaller planets. GLAST, now known as Fermi, is a powerful space observatory that will explore some of the most extreme environments in the universe.

The objective of our audit was to evaluate whether NASA’s LSP, through its implementation of NLS contracts, acquired ELVs within costs and timeframes established by the contracts. We also evaluated whether NASA’s acquisition strategy for post-2010 ELV procurements as set forth in an August 2009 report to Congress is cost-effective and the most advantageous to the Government. Details of the audit’s scope and methodology are in Appendix A.

The Results

We found that NASA’s LSP acquired ELVs from 2008 through 2009 that were within costs and time frames established by the NLS contracts. We also found that NASA’s published strategy for acquiring medium-class launch vehicles after 2010 may not be the most cost-effective or advantageous to the Government because it did not include as a possible option use of Minotaur, a launch vehicle that uses a U.S. Government-furnished rocket motor from decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Our analysis shows that use of the Minotaur for certain NASA science missions offers significant savings when compared to the available commercially provided intermediate class launch vehicles cited in NASA’s report to Congress. Moreover, it also would be less expensive than SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which is still under development and not yet certified to carry NASA science missions. For example, if NASA used the Minotaur rather than Falcon 9 or the intermediate-class Atlas V for the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission scheduled for launch in November 2014, the Agency could save between $61 million and $156 million (see Appendix B).

In response to this finding, NASA stated that use of the Minotaur for some of its science missions could have a negative impact on the domestic commercial rocket industry because it might discourage companies from entering the launch services market. However, as discussed above it is unlikely that reliable and competitively priced medium class launch vehicles will be available in time for the SMAP mission. Accordingly, while we appreciate the legal and policy reasons for promoting commercial launch providers, we believe that NASA should consider using the Minotaur as a launch vehicle for appropriate science missions until cost-effective and reliable commercial launch services are available.

NASA’s Published Acquisition Strategy for Launch Vehicles Did Not Include the Use of Minotaur for Medium-Class Launches

In accordance with Section 621 of the NASA Authorization Act of 2008, NASA developed and submitted a report to Congress setting forth its acquisition strategy for providing domestic commercial launch services to support small- and medium-class missions of NASA’s Exploration Systems, Science, and Space Operations Mission Directorates (see Appendix C). The strategy involved extending the ordering period for existing NLS contracts from June 2010 through June 2020 to allow current launch services providers to offer launch vehicles that were not available at the time the initial contract was awarded and new launch services providers an opportunity to compete for future launch services contracts. NASA also plans to monitor development efforts of Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital) and SpaceX, the two commercial partners selected as part of the Agency’s COTS Program, to develop a new cargo transport capability to resupply the ISS after retirement of the Space Shuttle. Although NASA listed the Minotaur as a possible option to launch small-class science missions, the acquisition strategy laid out in the report to Congress did not discuss the Minotaur as a possible launch vehicle for NASA’s medium-class science missions. However, after the Office of Inspector General (OIG) provided NASA a draft copy of this report, the Agency informed us that “consistent with law and policy” it would consider using the Minotaur for medium-class missions.

NASA’s published acquisition strategy assumes that in the next 4 years commercial companies will develop affordable medium-class launch vehicles under the COTS Program. Moreover, NASA anticipates that spreading fixed costs over a larger number of resupply flights for the ISS will result in competitively priced medium-class launch vehicles. Although launch vehicles developed for ISS resupply missions may indeed be feasible options for science missions requiring medium-class launch vehicles, none of these vehicles has yet been certified and there is a significant risk that delays and technical issues will arise during the certification process that will prevent their certification in time for the SMAP mission currently scheduled for 2014.

The competitive award process for a mission’s launch vehicle typically results in a selection 30 months before a mission’s scheduled launch date. If commercial companies are unable to timely provide vehicles that meet NASA’s medium-class launch requirements, the Agency’s plan calls for choosing between two United Launch Alliance (ULA) vehicles: the medium-class Delta II and the intermediate-class Atlas V. However, there are significant issues with each of these options.

First, the Delta II may not be available for NASA missions after 2011 because the Air Force has stopped using the vehicle in favor of larger intermediate-class launch vehicles such as the Atlas V that provide greater lift capability. Consequently, many of the components for the standard configuration Delta II are no longer being produced. According to NASA officials, restarting the Delta II production line to service NASA’s needs would be cost prohibitive.

Second, the remaining unsold Delta IIs in ULA’s inventory are “7920 heavy” configuration models that can only be launched from Space Launch Complex 17B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. However, in order to reach polar orbit NASA launches most of its Earth science missions at the Western Test Range at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Heavy configuration Delta IIs could not be launched from this location without costly modifications to the launch pad infrastructure at Vandenberg.

Third, if NASA uses the intermediate-class Atlas V instead of a medium-class launch vehicle, the Agency estimates that its costs will increase by an additional $100 million to $300 million per launch.

In sum, the loss of the Delta II as a viable launch option means that NASA may be more likely to rely on intermediate-class launch vehicles like the Atlas V to meet its medium class launch requirements until Orbital, SpaceX, or another commercial entity produces a more cost-effective medium-class launch vehicle. Our analysis of NASA’s future medium-class launch manifest and launch vehicle options shows that using Minotaur launch vehicles would be significantly less expensive than using either an Atlas V or even SpaceX’s yet-to-be certified Falcon 9 and could provide a viable interim solution for several of NASA’s medium-class science missions planned from 2010 through 2020.

As previously noted, although new medium-class launch vehicles are in development from commercial providers, NASA LSP officials anticipate the earliest these vehicles could complete the required NASA certification is between late 2013 and early 2014. LSP officials told the OIG that a launch provider can be awarded a launch service task order before certification of its vehicle. Currently, the Falcon 9 is the only medium-class launch vehicle included in the NLS II contract, and the Falcon 9 flew its first two successful test flights in June and December 2010. However, if NASA selected the Falcon 9 for the SMAP mission prior to certification, the Agency would need to accept a significantly higher degree of risk and determine how to address potential cost increases and schedule delays that could result if technical issues were identified during the certification process. These potential cost increases are not included in the SMAP mission budget and if they materialized could affect the funding available for other Science Mission Directorate (SMD) missions. Figure 1 shows the various vehicles that could potentially be available for medium-class launches.

SMD personnel stated that launch requirements for some of the 13 medium-class missions included in the current NLS II Projected Mission Model potentially could be met by a Minotaur launch vehicle. We estimate the average cost of using Minotaurs for these science missions, currently scheduled for launch from 2012 through 2020, to be $63 million per launch as compared with $141 million per launch using a Falcon 9 and $264 million per launch for an intermediate-class Atlas V. Accordingly, NASA could save an average of $78 million to $200 million per launch by using a Minotaur rather than a Falcon 9 or an Atlas V, respectively, for launches occurring through 2020.

As mentioned previously, the competitive award process for a mission’s launch vehicle generally occurs 30 months before the scheduled launch date. Therefore, a late 2013 or early 2014 certification date for a new medium-class launch vehicle may be too late for the SMAP mission, which is scheduled to launch in November 2014. LSP officials stated that a launch service task order can be awarded prior to certification. However, there are inherent schedule and cost risks associated with choosing an uncertified launch vehicle. NASA’s other science missions that will require a medium-class launch vehicle are scheduled for launch from 2015 through 2020 and therefore could potentially use new commercially developed medium-class launch vehicles such as the Falcon 9. However, if cost-effective commercial medium-class vehicles are not ready for flight in time for these other missions, NASA could save money by using Minotaurs instead of larger, more expensive Atlas V intermediate-class launch vehicle.

Obstacles to Using Minotaur

As noted above, after reviewing a draft of our audit report NASA officials told us that “consistent with law and policy” they will consider using the Minotaur for medium-class science missions on a case-by-case basis. They explained that for each mission they will first determine whether cost-effective commercial launch services that meet mission requirements are available and, depending on the results of that determination, may pursue using a Minotaur for a particular mission. They also expressed concern that using the Minotaur for multiple missions would threaten the viability of commercial providers of small- and medium-class launch services and may increase the number of bid protests on contract awards because commercial companies would argue that U.S. law and space transportation policy requires NASA to use U.S. commercial vendors to the maximum extent practicable.

However, in January 2009 the NASA Administrator signed a memorandum stating that use of a Minotaur launch vehicle for SMD’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) met the requirements of the Commercial Space Act and National Security Presidential Directive-40, “U.S. Space Transportation Policy,” December 21, 2004. Moreover, NASA successfully defended this decision against a subsequent bid protest.

The LADEE mission is a small, 284-kilogram satellite designed to orbit the Moon originally scheduled for a 2010 or 2011 launch. During its planning process, NASA evaluated a series of potential launch vehicles, including SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon 1e, and determined that the Minotaur launch vehicle best met NASA’s
requirements. In October 2009, SpaceX filed a bid protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) claiming that the contract award to Orbital for the Minotaur violated the Commercial Space Act of 1998 because NASA unreasonably concluded that no cost-effective commercial launch services were available from U.S. providers. On February 1, 2010, GAO denied SpaceX’s protest, stating that NASA reasonably concluded that cost-effective commercial alternatives to the use of the Minotaur for the LADEE mission were not available. The LADEE mission is currently scheduled for launch in May 2013.

Finally, current law allows NASA to use excess intercontinental ballistic missiles under certain circumstances. The Commercial Space Act of 1998 requires the NASA Administrator to obtain approval from the Secretary of Defense to use a Minotaur as a space transportation vehicle and to certify to Congress that the use of the Minotaur would result in cost savings to the Federal Government, meet all mission requirements, and be consistent with international obligations of the United States. In addition, Title 42, United States Code (U.S.C.), Section 14734 (Use of excess intercontinental ballistic missiles) provides NASA the option of using space vehicles derived from excess intercontinental ballistic missiles, such as the Minotaur.

Management Action

We recommend that the Assistant Associate Administrator for Launch Services and the Associate Administrator for SMD evaluate whether cost-effective and mission-suitable commercial launch vehicles will be reasonably available when required for the SMAP mission scheduled for launch in November 2014. As part of this evaluation, they should consider whether the Minotaur could meet mission requirements and whether its use would result in a cost savings in accordance with the Commercial Space Act of 1998. In addition, the Assistant Associate Administrator and the Associate Administrator should conduct a similar evaluation for each future medium-class science mission.

In response to a draft of this report, the Associate Administrators for Science and Space Operations concurred with our recommendation and stated that the intent of the recommendation reflects NASA’s current process. The Associate Administrators also expressed concern with the impact that use of the Minotaur could have on the commercial space transportation industry. Nevertheless, they indicated that NASA will consider the Minotaur as a launch option for its science missions consistent with law and policy (see the Agency’s response in Appendix D). The Associate Administrators also provided technical comments to our draft report, which we incorporated into the report as appropriate.

We commend NASA for making clear its commitment to considering economical alternatives like the Minotaur for its medium-class launch services requirements, especially in the current fiscally constrained environment. We consider NASA’s comments to be responsive to our recommendation and the recommendation to be resolved. We will close the recommendation upon completion and verification of the planned action.