Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle: DOD Is Assessing Data on Worldwide Launch Market to Inform New Acquisition Strategy

GAO-16-661R Published: Jul 22, 2016. Publicly Released: Jul 22, 2016.
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What GAO Found

Five countries outside of the United States have operational space launch capabilities: the European Union, Russia, India, Japan, and China. Most of these countries each primarily depend on a single launch provider for launches of a specific capability within their country to meet their civil government and military launch requirements. The United States is unique in that it relies on more than two launch providers–including United Launch Alliance, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), and Orbital ATK — with some overlapping capabilities to meet its own civil and military needs.

Data on how foreign governments support their launch providers is limited. Based on what general information is available, experts said that launch providers receive some support from their governments, typically through research and development funding, direct payments, government-provided infrastructure, and government ownership, but the type of support varies by country. For example, the U.S. government awarded nearly $1.7 billion in research and development contracts and Space Act agreements to its launch providers which, with private investments from the launch providers, resulted in the launch vehicles available for use today, while Arianespace, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) preferred launch provider, receives direct payments to cover the cost of operating three launch systems.

The Department of Defense (DOD) is taking steps to develop an acquisition strategy for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program that helps to ensure at least two U.S.-based launch providers can remain viable to compete for future national security launches. As part of this effort, DOD is gathering and analyzing information on predicted launch demand. However, history has proven that it is difficult to reliably predict the demand for launch services. Many factors influence the quantity, size, and frequency of satellite launches for both government and commercial use, such as the demand for satellite telecommunication services or the constellation health of satellite systems.

Why GAO Did This Study

The United States government is striving to help develop a competitive market for space launches from which it can acquire its military satellite launches in order to help lower the price of launch and assure its access to space. However, questions have been raised about whether competition among U.S. launch providers is sustainable given market conditions, both domestically and internationally. In 2015, there were 86 global launches, 22 of which were considered commercial launches. Commercial launches are those that are open to international competition and companies seeking launch services select a provider based on a number of factors such as price, capability, and reliability. A key question is the extent to which other countries that launch satellites rely on more than one launch provider with similar capabilities, or have been able to foster competition to the extent that the United States is seeking.  For over 10 years, the Air Force’s EELV program has been awarding space launch contracts to a single incumbent provider because there were no other U.S. launch providers in a position to compete for national security launches. In recent years, the prospects for competition for national security launches have been improving, with several companies becoming or working to become certified to compete for national security launches. In 2015, SpaceX was certified to launch national security payloads and recently won a contract to launch the second Global Positioning System III satellite.

In February 2016, Congress asked GAO to examine what is known about other countries with launch capabilities and whether or not countries had fostered competition among launch providers, similar to what the United States is attempting to do in the EELV program. GAO responded to this request with a written briefing on the worldwide space launch capabilities and the status of the United States and global launch market. Specifically, GAO examined what is known about (1) foreign satellite launch capabilities and which foreign governments rely on more than one launch provider with similar capabilities for access to space; (2) the range and type of government support that foreign launch providers receive; and (3) steps DOD is taking to incorporate consideration of the current and predicted national security, civil government, and commercial launches into its acquisition strategy for the EELV program.

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