Launch Vehicle Certification Process Poses Significant Challenges for New Entrants

Atlas V launches OTV3 into orbit from Cape Canaveral. (Credit: Pat Corkery, United Launch Alliance.)
Atlas V launches OTV3 into orbit from Cape Canaveral. (Credit: Pat Corkery, United Launch Alliance.)

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

New entrants hoping to break ULA’s monopoly on national security space (NSS) launches face a number of obstacles in getting their launch vehicles certified, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Perhaps the biggest challenge: the U.S. Air Force considers almost everything it launches into space to be its most critical payloads (Class A), requiring the services of proven rockets like ULA’s Atlas V or Delta IV. Military officials have yet to figure out how to re-classify some of these payloads as less critical (Class B, C and D), thus allowing them to be launched on vehicles with fewer flights under their belts.

This lack of opportunity to prove their launch vehicles is a significant issue for the four companies hoping to compete for NSS launches: SpaceX with its Falcon 9 and  Falcon Heavy rockets; Orbital Sciences Corporation with Antares; Lockheed Martin with Athena III; and ATK with Liberty II.

The GAO says that Air Force officials are working to address this issue, but major obstacles remain.

“Air Force officials told GAO that they are currently developing a process to reassess payload risk classifications for NSS payloads, but state that reclassification of NSS missions to reflect increased payload risk tolerance is unlikely for several reasons, including the inherent national significance of NSS missions, and the unintended stigma attached to rendering one mission ‘less critical’ than another,” according to the report.

However, Air Force officials said “there may be science and technology missions that could be classified as more tolerant to risk, thereby providing opportunities for new entrants to gain launch experience and build toward vehicle certification.”

Commercial and other non-NSS launches can be used to fulfill the requirements of each rocket’s certification plan, which is agreed upon between the Air Force and provider. However, “the launch vehicle configuration used is identical to the vehicle for which the new entrant is pursuing certification.”

New entrants will be able to compete with ULA for NSS launches beginning in 2015 if they are certified by then.

“The Air Force recently made 14 launches available for competition beginning in 2015, but to be eligible to compete for these launches, new entrants must successfully execute the requisite number of non-NSS launches and submit data from their final certification launch,” the report states.

Although new entrants told the GAO they were generally satisfied with the Air Force’s effort to open up launch competition under the New Entrant Certification Guide (NECG), they did identify a number of additional challenges they faced. For example, all payloads would have to be integrated in the upright, or vertical, position. SpaceX integrates its payloads in a horizontal manner, raising its Falcon 9 rocket into a horizontal position on the launch pad.

“Senior Air Force officials indicated that even if a payload could be retrofitted to be horizontally mated to the launch vehicle and significant cost savings could be realized by allowing horizontal integration, the requirement for vertical payload integration would stand, as NSS payloads are designed to be vertically mated to the launch vehicle,” according to the report.

New entrants also expressed concerns over Air Force policies that appear to favor ULA. Their concerns include:

  • “DOD provides about $1 billion a year to ULA to support its national launch infrastructure, and provides funding to ULA for ongoing engine and other technology development….
  • “New entrants note that historical criteria for competition in the EELV [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle] program were more lenient than those applied to new entrants under the NECG. For example, Boeing and Lockheed Martin were allowed to compete for launch contracts prior to completion of final vehicle designs. Air Force officials acknowledge that criteria to compete for launches were different in the 1990s, noting that the acquisition environment was also different.”

In a written response, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall denied that the certification process has been made more difficult for new entrants.

“The presentation erroneously states that the Department of Defense used a different certification standard for the incumbent provider than will be applied to new entrants (page 18). The NECG includes a certification path identical to the one used by the current provider,” Kendall wrote.

The new entrants also are concerned about the Air Force’s recent revision of its Standard Interface Specification (SIS) document, which provides technical requirements for payload integration with the launch vehicle. ULA was involved in the revisions, some of which reflect the company’s capabilities. New entrants were not allowed any input into the process.

“New entrants expressed concern that other requirements documents could change without notice, and additional requirements could be added to the certification process, increasing the schedule and potentially adding to the cost of launch vehicle certification,” the report states.

“Air Force officials told us the SIS revisions would not have a significant impact on new entrants, although they acknowledged that they did not ask or assess what the impact on new entrants would be. Air Force and ULA officials confirmed their joint development of SIS revisions, which in some cases reflect current ULA capabilities,” according to the report.

“Air Force officials said the System Performance Requirements Document, which governs minimum launch system performance requirements, is currently undergoing revision. They indicated revisions will be made available to new entrants prior to finalization, and that the new entrants will be invited to comment on the changes,” the report added.

The Air Force has placed a minimum 20,000 lb. lift requirement to low Earth orbit on all new launch vehicles, arguing that most NSS payloads will require this capability in the foreseeable future. The 20,000 lb. lifting capability is also at the lower end of launch vehicles now in use.

“New entrants indicate that this requirement is overly restrictive to their business plans, noting that commercial customers typically do not require this much lift capability; new entrants with no commercial demand for larger launch vehicles would prefer to compete for small and medium NSS payloads, leaving larger NSS payloads to other providers,” the report states.

The Air Force also is requiring new entrants to be able to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, regardless of whether they have alternate launch facilities. Air Force officials argue that other sites lack the required payload integration facilities.

SpaceX has already launched its Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral and has built a launch complex at Vandenberg. Other entrants would face potentially costly efforts to built or refurbish facilities at these locations before knowing if there is a business case for it. Orbital Sciences Corporation, which launches its Antares rocket from the civilian-run Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia, is at a disadvantage under this policy.

  • I wonder if the X-37 launch risk could be reduced by adding some abort procedures. Return to launch site, abort to orbit, or landing on the other side other the atlantic.

  • delphinus100

    Getting out from inside the shroud in a hurry would be a challenge, even if the X-37’s own propulsion were adequate for ‘pusher’ launch escape…
    Unlike Dragon/CST-100/Dream Chaser/Blue Origin which all do or will ride in the open.

    Soyuz takes the shroud away with it, but that requires the weight penalty of a dedicated ‘tractor’ LES. We don’t do that so far with unmanned spacecraft, unless they’re manned prototypes.

  • What large changes would be needed to allow payloads normally integrated vertically, to be integrated horizontally? That is beside one word in a gov’t report. – Blaze Sanders Solar System Express (Sol-X) CEO/CTO