U.S. Launch Enterprise:

Acquisition Best Practices Can Benefit Future Efforts

GAO-14-776T: Published: Jul 16, 2014. Publicly Released: Jul 16, 2014.

Additional Materials:


Cristina T. Chaplain
(202) 512-4841


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

What GAO Found

GAO has reported extensively on the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program in the past.

  • In 2008, GAO reported that when the Department of Defense (DOD) moved the EELV program from the research and development phase to the sustainment phase in the previous year, DOD eliminated various reporting requirements that would have provided useful oversight to program officials and the Congress.
  • In 2011, GAO reported that the block buy acquisition approach may be based on incomplete information and although DOD was still gathering data as it finalized the new acquisition strategy, some critical knowledge gaps remained.
  • In 2012, GAO reported that DOD had numerous efforts under way to address the knowledge gaps and data deficiencies identified in the 2011 GAO report, and found that two of GAO’s seven recommendations had been completely addressed, four partially addressed, and one had no action taken. 
  • In 2013, GAO reported on the status of DOD's efforts to certify new entrants for EELV acquisitions. While potential new entrants stated that they were generally satisfied with the Air Force’s efforts to implement the process, they identified several challenges to certification, as well as perceived advantages afforded to the incumbent launch provider.
  • In 2014, GAO reported and testified that DOD's new contract with ULA (sometimes referred to as the “block buy”) represented a significant effort on the part of DOD tonegotiate better launch prices through improved knowledge of contractor costs. DOD officials expect the new contract to realize significant savings, primarily through stable unit pricing for all launch vehicles.

Space launch vehicle development efforts are high risk from technical, programmatic, and oversight perspectives.  It is imperative that any future development effort adopts disciplined practices and lessons learned from past programs. Practices that would especially benefit a launch vehicle development effort include the following:

  • Decisions on what type of new program to pursue should be made with a government-wide and long-term perspective. 
  • Requirements and resources (for example, time, money, and people) need to be matched.
  • The EELV program itself should adopt knowledge-based practices.

Why GAO Did This Study

The EELV program is the primary provider of launch vehicles for U.S. military and intelligence satellites. The DOD expects to spend about $9.5 billion over the next five years acquiring launch hardware and services through the program, during which time it will also be working to certify new launch providers.  This investment represents a significant amount of what the entire U.S. government expects to spend on launch activities—including new development, acquisition of launch hardware and services, and operations and maintenance of launch ranges—for the same period.  The United Launch Alliance (ULA) is currently the sole provider of launch services through the EELV program.  However, DOD, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) are working to certify new launch providers who can compete with ULA for launch contracts.

GAO was asked to discuss past work related to the EELV program, as well as best practices for acquiring new launch capabilities, as the Congress is currently weighing the need to reduce our reliance on rocket engines produced in Russia.

For more information, contact Cristina Chaplain at (202) 512-4841 or chaplainc@gao.gov.