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GAO: Weapon Systems Annual Assessment Updated Program Oversight Approach Needed - Excerpt: National Security Space Launch (NSSL)

Status Report From: Government Accountability Office
Posted: Monday, June 21, 2021

Editor's note: The ULA Vulcan program has contracted with Blue Origin to provide its BE-4 rocket engine. This BE-4 engine is not referred to by name in this report, but it is what is referred to in this report i.e. "A U.S. produced rocket engine under development for ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle is experiencing technical challenges related to the igniter and booster capabilities required and may not be qualified in time to support first launches beginning in 2021."

Full report

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National Security Space Launch (NSSL)

The Space Force’s NSSL provides space lift support for national security and other government missions. Currently, NSSL procures launch services from United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), supporting U.S. policy, as stated in law, to undertake actions appropriate to ensure to the maximum extent practicable the U.S. has the capabilities necessary to launch and insert national security payloads into space when needed. We focused our review on NSSL’s investments in new launch systems from U.S. launch providers.

Program Essentials

Milestone decision authority: Under Secretary of Defense, Acquisition and Sustainment Program office: El Segundo, CA Prime contractors: Space Exploration Technologies; United Launch Alliance Contract type: Other Transaction (engines and launch vehicle prototypes); FFP (launch services)

Current Status

In August 2020, the program told us it competitively awarded 5-year launch service contracts to ULA and SpaceX for approximately 34 launches beginning in 2022 and planned to continue through 2027.

NSSL faces technical challenges to meeting its goal of ending reliance on rocket engines manufactured in the Russian Federation by the end of 2021. The Carl Levin and Howard P. “Buck” McKeon National Defense Authorization Act 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 NSSL—then-Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle—program if such contract carries out such activities using rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation.

A subsequent amendment to the statute provided an exception for contracts awarded through 2022 for such procurements that include the use of a total of 18 rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation. A U.S. produced rocket engine under development for ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle is experiencing technical challenges related to the igniter and booster capabilities required and may not be qualified in time to support first launches beginning in 2021.

A joint program office and ULA team is tracking these challenges, and NSSL officials told us Vulcan remains on track to support first launches and certification in 2021.

However, if ULA cannot complete engine qualification before the 2021 flight certification, the program might continue to rely on ULA’s Atlas V—which uses engines manufactured in the Russian Federation—to support ULA’s 2022 launches, despite a nearly $2.9 billion investment in new launch system development. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles are certified to conduct national security launches. The Falcon Heavy is undergoing some modifications to fully meet launch requirements and is on track to support its first mission in May 2021.

Program Office Comments

We provided a draft of this assessment to the program office for review and comment. The program office provided technical comments, which we incorporated. The program office stated that it has been extremely successful and efficient with unprecedented mission success and a $22 billion reduction to life-cycle costs, representing a 28 percent unit cost decrease since 2013. It added that the Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement contract provides assured access manifest flexibility, and incorporates industry innovation.

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