Air Force Space Command Completes New Entrant Launch Certification Review

Air Force Space Command announces Broad Area Review XV, which examined the new entrant launch certification process.  Image Credit: USAF

Air Force Space Command announces Broad Area Review XV, which examined the new entrant launch certification process. Image Credit: USAF

July 9, 2015 – Air Force Space Command has announced the completion of the Institute for Defense Analyses Broad Area Review of AFSPC launch vehicle certification. The independent review examined the process of certification and provided specific recommendations based on lessons learned. The intent of the review is to assure access to space for National Security Space missions.

“Assured access to space is still our prime directive,” said General John Hyten, AFSPC Commander. “We’re not going to put a multi-billion dollar satellite on top of a rocket that we are not confident in, but industry survival is also paramount to assured access. Any event or development that could lead to a single launch vehicle and thusly a single point of failure for NSS missions degrades our assured access.”

One of the findings of the study posits that with the certification of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 to launch medium-weight class National Security Space missions, those NSS missions alone will not be able to sustain multiple launch providers’ bottom lines. Launch providers will need to stay competitive in both the NSS and commercial launch sectors.

This realization may have been a factor in United Launch Alliance’s decision to end Delta IV rocket production in 2017. ULA indicated it will continue to make available the Delta IV Heavy, currently the only launch vehicle certified to launch the heaviest class NSS missions, as long as the Department of Defense missions require and fund it. The Space and Missile System Center has already received certification requests from SpaceX for the Falcon 9 Heavy, which could affect the DoD’s need for the Delta IV Heavy.

“If the Atlas V can’t fly, due to Congressional restrictions on the RD-180, and ULA ends production of the Delta IV, we may be in a position where we trade one monopoly for another,” said General Hyten. “That’s what we’re concerned about and why we’ve proposed language to Congress to get us through the period of ’18 to ’22 with the RD-180.”

ULA also requested certification for the Vulcan rocket and the report’s recommendations should make the process smoother in the future for them, for SpaceX and any other new entrants.

“We have pushed some of the flight readiness milestones for new entrants further back in the process so a new entrant can become qualified to compete prior to meeting the stringent mission quality reviews,” said General Hyten.

Flight readiness reviews would happen during mission lead time, usually 2-3 years. If any milestones were to be missed it could cause the mission to slip to a later date.

“We will never sacrifice quality and risk National Security Space assets, but we are willing to accept some risk in mission scheduling for the sake of competition,” said General Hyten.

The report recommends the Air Force adopt a four-phase approach to mission assurance; provider eligibility, launch system qualification, launch system certification, and flight readiness; with the level of launch provider requirements appropriate to the phase. The BAR states the Air Force certification requirements being completed entirely prior to the provider’s ability to compete for a launch award were unnecessarily restrictive and difficult.

The Air Force has already eased those restrictions by allowing the Certifying Official, usually the Space and Missile System Center commander, to determine if a new entrant is qualified to compete for a launch contract based upon the entrant’s ability to complete certification in time to meet the scheduled launch.

This means the SMC Commander can make a determination based on completed items and confidence in the launch vehicle and essential support, as well as, the specific risk tolerance of the mission to allow a company to compete for a launch contract award. The policy shift would more closely mirror NASA’s and allow for certification based on levels of risk.

“Risk in National Security launches goes beyond the individual payload to the broader definition of risk to the constellation and end-user capability,” said General Hyten. “The consequences of launch failure would be much greater to a constellation consisting of just a few satellites than if a failure were to occur in a more robust constellation.”

Risk is also present for launch providers. The report estimates that a provider needs eight to ten launches annually to remain a viable and competitive company.

The acceptable level of risk for NSS missions is much smaller than that of some commercial companies. One company cited in the report said their acceptable level of risk is 10%, or 1 in 10 missions ending in failure. Compare that to around 1% for NSS missions. Factoring in how expensive trimming that risk margin is and it becomes clear why providers of NSS missions can price themselves out of the commercial market.

Think of two car dealerships side-by-side. One sells only high-end luxury sedans and the other sells used compacts. If the majority of their potential customers simply just want a car, it would be hard for the high-end dealership to compete.

According to the report, another threat to competition is what to do if there is a launch failure of an NSS mission by one of the certified companies. Part of the response to an NSS launch failure is to stand-down the launch vehicle while a review of the failure is accomplished. During this time launches would be awarded to the remaining provider(s).

AFSPC will stand up an implementation team to review the report’s recommendations. The team will move toward an implementation phase as part of the normal AFSPC administrative and programing processes for affected mission areas.

“The first time you go through with something, the nature of the bureaucracy is to make sure you have everything covered. When you look in hindsight, there are some things we can do to streamline the process, some smart things we can do in the future. You always learn the first time you go through something,” said General Hyten.

This was the sixth BAR conducted by IDA’s Independent Strategic Assessment Group since 1999, each assessing a different set of space launch issues. IDA consulted NASA, the National Reconnaissance Office, SMC, commercial launch customers and key space industry leaders for information used in the report. The review group was headed by retired Air Force General Larry Welch, who served as the 12th Air Force Chief of Staff.

During a recent NASA mission, a Falcon 9 launch vehicle launch suffered a failure shortly after takeoff. SpaceX’s investigation is underway with support from NASA and oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration, which issued the launch license. The Air Force has been invited to observe this investigation and has offered full support. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Launch System remains certified and has demonstrated 18 successful missions.