The Rockets’ Red Ink: from EELV to a Competitive Space Launch Future
Charts updated; Elon Musk points out that Atlas V engine is Russian, says it’s time to open full competition; GAO reports highlights costs, challenge of structuring competition intelligently; Additional Readings section updated, & upgraded with “Official Reports” section.
March 12/14: GAO Report. GAO releases GAO-14-382T, “Acquisition Management Continues to Improve but Challenges Persist for Current and Future Programs.” Regarding EELV:
“In December 2013, DOD signed a contract modification with ULA to purchase 35 launch vehicle booster cores over a 5-year period, 2013- 2017, and the associated capability to launch them. According to the Air Force, this contracting strategy saved $4.4 billion over the predicted program cost in the fiscal year 2012 budget [DID: but see March 5/14 entry].
….DOD expects to issue a draft request for proposal for the first of the competitive missions, where the method for evaluating and comparing proposals will be explained, in the spring of 2014…. The planned competition for launch services may have helped DOD negotiate the lower prices it achieved in its December 2013 contract modification, and DOD could see further savings if a robust domestic launch market materializes. DOD noted in its 2014 President’s Budget submission for EELV that after the current contract with ULA has ended, it plans to have a full and open competition for national security space launches. Cost savings on launches, as long as they do not come with a reduction in mission successes, would greatly benefit DOD, and allow the department to put funding previously needed for launches into programs in the development phases to ensure they are adequately resourced.”
March 5/14: Politics. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gives testimony to the Senate Committee on Appropriations’ Defense Subcommittee. His basic message is that once competition is possible, every launch should be competed on a firm fixed-price basis, and ULA’s $1 billion per year subsidy should be removed. His firm isn’t certified for national security launches yet, but he hopes that a very involved and intrusive process involving over 300 government officials will be done by year-end. Key excerpts:
“I commend the United Launch Alliance (ULA) on its launch successes to date. However, year after year, ULA has increased its prices…. In FY13 the Air Force paid on average in excess of $380 million for each national security launch, while subsidizing ULA’s fixed costs to the tune of more than $1 billion per year…. By contrast, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 price for an EELV mission is well under $100M… and SpaceX seeks no subsidies…. had SpaceX been awarded the missions ULA received under its recent non-competed 36 core block buy, we would have saved the taxpayer $11.6 billion…. now we have serious concerns that it may not be the case that 5 missions [planned outside the block buy] will be openly competed [in FY15]…. To be clear, every mission capable of being launched by qualified new entrants should be competed this year and every year moving forward…. Consistent with federal procurement regulations and DOD acquisition directives, when a competitive environment exists, the Government should utilize firm, fixed-price, FAR Part 12 contracts that properly incent contractors to deliver on-time and on-budget. That also means eliminating $1 billion subsidies to the incumbent, as those subsidies create an extremely unequal playing field.”
Air Force data that wasn’t public until the GAO’s report yesterday (q.v. March 4/14) show $2.247 billion in FY13 funding for 11 launches from all EELV customers, which works out to $204 million per launch. The comparison may not be exact – either way, ULA’s problem is that they’re unlikely to be able to compete with SpaceX on a level playing field, now that SpaceX has refined rockets whose significantly lower costs are a product of hardware research & design. The GAO has explained (q.v. March 4/14) why pure fixed-price competition is best for SpaceX, but the implications go farther. ULA’s problem isn’t just competitive, it’s existential. Firm-fixed price competition for every launch, under a structure that eliminated byzantine cost-reporting systems, could turn ULA into a sharply-downsized bit player very quickly.
To survive, ULA has 3 options: (1) Hope that lobbying funds can deliver them contracts by skewing competitive structures, and limiting competition, regardless of costs to the government, even as military budgets shrink; (2) Deliver new designs with different cost points, soon, thanks to major, fast-moving and wide-ranging internal design efforts that are already underway; (3) Hope that future accidents force SpaceX into a lesser launch status, and force Falcon redesigns with higher costs. Just to make things really interesting, and highlight the need for #2, Musk’s testimony makes a pointed reference to the Atlas V’s Russian engine:
“Our Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles are truly made in America…. the United Launch Alliance’s most frequently flown vehicle, the Atlas V, which uses a Russian main engine and where approximately half the airframe is manufactured overseas. In light of Russia’s de facto annexation of the Ukraine’s Crimea region and the formal severing of military ties, the Atlas V cannot possibly be described as providing “assured access to space” for our nation when supply of the main engine depends on President Putin’s permission. Given this development, it would seem prudent to reconsider whether the 36 core uncompeted, sole source award to ULA is truly in the best interests of the people of the United States.”
March 4/14: GAO Report. The GAO releases GAO-14-377R, “The Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Competitive Procurement”. The period from 2002 – 2013 has seen a total of $18.974 billion spent on 55 military and government launches, and the GAO places the total for EELV-type space launches to 2030 at an astonishing $70 billion. They also look at potential competition structures, which is a critical question. There are outside indications that the federal government could save up to half of its costs, as well as risks that the wrong acquisition policy could entrench existing or new monopolies. What’s the right thing to do? The GAO’s competition structure chart is reproduced here.
The GAO also covers significant changes in the EELV contract structure. Projected escalations in EELV costs were so high that they forced a new acquisition strategy in 2011, and the Pentagon & NRO’s homework included both intrusive and detailed pricing data for ULA rocket components, and scrutiny of the government’s own launch processes. A June 2013 contract for 35 cores was finalized in December 2013, leveraging insights gained to improve government bargaining, combining the 2 previous launch & infrastructure contracts into 1 framework (but 2 budget lines), and creating a touted $4.4 billion in relative savings, according to the USAF. Even so, nailing down exact costs per launch remains tricky, because about 75% of cost-reimbursement items still aren’t broken out per launch. Other key excerpts:
“…DOD officials say the administrative burden of renegotiating every year will be substantially lessened due to the new contract’s simplified structure…. ULA periodically sells launch services to customers outside of the EELV program, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and to commercial customers. Because DOD pays for ULA’s fixed costs, DOD receives compensation… on a per-launch basis for launches ULA sells to non-DOD customers. Prior to the December 2013 contract modification, compensation amounts were loosely based on an average of 30 days of launch pad use… DOD was reimbursed through price reductions on ULA invoices submitted to DOD at the end of the fiscal year. Under the new contract, compensation is based on some actual costs, including factory support and direct labor hours, and is approximately three times the dollar amount per-launch of reimbursements under previous contracts.”
As for the new competition regime, which is expected to start in FY15, it’s worth noting that some of the questions involve the byzantine reporting systems demanded by cost-reimbursement approaches. ULA had to install them, raising their costs and lowering corporate flexibility. SpaceX hasn’t, and a firm-fixed price per launch cost wouldn’t force them to. The US government may move to systems that would force such systems on SpaceX, despite firm-fixed costs half as much as ULA’s. Cost alone won’t be the decider, either:
“DOD officials told us they intend to use a best value approach in evaluating proposals from all competitors… may also consider mission risk, taking past performance into account, and satellite vehicle integration risks…. DOD is currently developing its methodology for comparing launch proposals, including establishing how proposals are to be structured, and what the specific evaluation criteria will be…. “
The EELV program was designed to reduce the cost of government space launches through greater contractor competition, and modifiable rocket families whose system requirements emphasized simplicity, commonality, standardization, new applications of existing technology, streamlined manufacturing capabilities, and more efficient launch-site processing. Result: the Delta IV (Boeing) and Atlas V (Lockheed Martin) heavy rockets.
Paradoxically, that very program may have forced the October 2006 merger of Boeing & Lockheed Martin’s rocket divisions. Crosslink Magazine’s Winter 2004 article “EELV: The Next Stage of Space Launch” offers an excellent briefing that covers EELV’s program innovations and results, while a detailed National Taxpayer’s Union letter to Congress takes a much less positive view. This DID Spotlight article looks at the Delta IV and Atlas V rockets, emerging challengers like SpaceX and the new competition framework, and the US government contracts placed since the merger that formed the United Launch Alliance.
The EELV System
Military Satellite Payloads
EELV Budgets & Structure
Competition Again? The New “Open” Launch Framework
Going Forward: Block Buys in a Broader EELV Program
Contracts & Key Events
FY 2008 – 2009
FY 2006 – 2007
Firms & Platforms
News & Views
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