Report to Congressional Committees
Weapon Systems Annual Assessment
Knowledge Gaps Pose Risks to Sustaining Recent Positive Trends
Government Accountability Office
Full Report (PDF)
Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) Program
Technology Maturity, Design Stability, and Production Readiness
All but one (14 of 15) of ULA’s launch vehicle variants—which are based on payload fairing size and number of strap-on solid rocket boosters used—and two variants of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 have flown at least once, demonstrating technology maturity. For design stability and production readiness, the program assesses launch vehicles using Aerospace Corporation’s “3/7 reliability rule.” Once a variant is launched successfully three times, its design can be considered stable and mature. Similarly, if a variant is successfully launched seven times, both the design and production process can be considered stable and mature.
Twelve of ULA’s variants have achieved design stability, and four have reached both design stability and production readiness. Some variants are used infrequently and may never reach design stability or production readiness.
The Falcon 9 v1.1 has achieved both design stability and production readiness, but did not meet Air Force National Security Space reliability or performance requirements, according to the program office.
A new variant—the Falcon 9 Upgrade, which SpaceX intends to use going forward for EELV launch service competitions—first flew in December 2015 and was certified for EELV launches in January 2016. SpaceX conducted an initial demonstration flight of its new variant—the Falcon Heavy—in February 2018.
New vehicles, or variants that introduce changes to the original design, can pose increased cost and schedule risks until they are proven through multiple successful flights.
Other Program Issues
The program is pursuing an acquisition approach to help ensure DOD’s access to space and maintain multiple launch providers. One of ULA’s current launch vehicles, Atlas V, uses the RD-180 engine for propulsion, which is designed and manufactured in Russia. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2015, as amended, prohibited, with certain exceptions, the award or renewal of a contract for the procurement of property or services for National Security Space launch activities under the EELV program if such contract carries out such activities using rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation.
In addition, a provision in the FY18 NDAA restricts any obligation or expenditure to carry out the EELV program using funds authorized under the FY18 NDAA or otherwise made available for FY18 for research, development, test, and evaluation to development of the following: a domestic rocket propulsion system to replace non-allied space launch engines; integration of the domestic propulsion system with an existing or planned launch vehicle; and capabilities necessary to enable existing or planned commercially available launch vehicles or infrastructure that are primarily for National Security Space missions to meet statutory assured access to space requirements.
The Air Force stated that to avoid a gap in launch capability for National Security Space launch missions, the Air Force awarded agreements in early 2016, utilizing DOD’s “other transaction” authority, for rocket propulsion system development. According to the program office, the awardees are on track for propulsion systems to be qualified and ready for production by 2019 to support the program’s requirement for assured access to space.
Furthermore, in October 2017, the EELV program office released a Launch Service Agreement request for proposals and by summer 2018 plans to award at least three other transaction agreements to develop launch vehicle prototypes capable of meeting national security requirements. The Air Force is requesting proposals for shared public-private investment in the launch systems. According to the program, in 2019, it plans to award contracts to two of the launch providers for a combined total of approximately 25 launches to occur from 2022 through 2026.
Implementing a strategy to support multiple providers may prove challenging as the program stated that it expects demand for national security launches to decline from about eight per year to five per year from 2022 to 2026 and providers will have to rely more heavily on conducting civil government and commercial launches, which have historically been difficult to predict. However, the Air Force recently released a request for information to gather detailed data from potential launch providers on the number of launches they require to close their business cases.
The Air Force may face challenges in supporting additional launches of its heaviest satellites because of parts obsolescence issues and the challenges for commercial-based systems to meet the National Security Space reliability and performance requirements for these missions.
The Air Force intends to procure three Delta IV Heavy-launch vehicles to support near-term national security launch requirements. However, while ULA has enough launch vehicle components to support these missions, if additional missions are required and other, new launch vehicles are not available as planned or projected, some new Delta IV Heavy components will have to be designed and manufactured to replace those that are no longer available from suppliers. The use of such components could involve substantial testing, certification, and additional cost.
Program Office Comments
The program office provided technical comments, which we incorporated where appropriate.