NASA OIG: Review of NASA's Acquisition of Commercial Launch Services

Status Report From: NASA Office of Inspector General
Posted: Friday, February 18, 2011

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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.1 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.


We found that NASA's LSP acquired ELVs from 2008 through 2009 that were within costs and timeframes established by the NLS contracts. However, 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 intermediateclass launch vehicles cited in NASA's report to Congress. 2,3 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).4

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 mediumclass 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.

1 Medium-class missions are typically satellite payloads between 1,500 and 3,200 kilograms (3,300 to 7,040 pounds), respectively, launched to a 675-kilometer (approximately 405 miles) orbit around the Earth.

2 Intermediate-class launch vehicles can carry payloads weighing more than 3,500 kilograms (7,700 pounds).

3 "Strategy for Small- and Medium-Class Launch Services," August 2009 (see Appendix C).

4 We based the estimated cost savings on the difference between the projected cost of a Minotaur IV, a Falcon 9, and an Atlas V ordered in 2012.

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