SASC OKs FY2015 NDAA – Adds Money for ORS, New Rocket Engine; Wants More Launch Competition – UPDATE

SASC OKs FY2015 NDAA – Adds Money for ORS, New Rocket Engine; Wants More Launch Competition – UPDATE

UPDATE:  The text of the bill and report are now available (see links in last paragraph).

ORIGINAL STORY:  The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved its version of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) late yesterday (May 22).  It contains a number of space-related provisions, especially affecting launches of U.S. national security satellites and also continues funding for the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office that the Obama Administration has been trying to close for several years.

The future of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program — both use of Russian RD-180 rocket engines for the Atlas V rocket and competition between the United Launch Alliance (ULA) and “new entrants” like SpaceX — features heavily in the space-related actions listed in the committee’s summary press release.

The deteriorating geopolitical relationship between the United States and Russia over Ukraine is shining a spotlight on U.S dependence on Russian space hardware and thrown the RD-180 engines into the middle of the controversy.  At the same time, SpaceX is suing the U.S. government because it awarded a block-buy contract for 36 EELV cores — including some for the Atlas V — on a sole source rather than competitive basis in December.  SpaceX already launches spacecraft for NASA and the commercial space sector and wants to compete for national security space launches.  That aspiration has the support of key Senators like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). 

McCain issued his own press release yesterday announcing that SASC had adopted his amendment to prohibit future contracts to purchase Russian rocket engines for U.S. national security space launches.  McCain’s press release did not provide the full text of the amendment.  The committee’s press release does not either, but it elaborates on what it involves.   While the use of RD-180s after the end of the current block-buy contract would be prohibited, that prohibition can be waived for national security reasons or if “space launch and services cannot be obtained at a fair and reasonable price.”  McCain said SASC also adopted amendments he sponsored that require full and open competition for two launches “they tried to sole source” and for an investigation of “undue reliance” on foreign suppliers and parts. 

In total, the provisions related to the EELV program and competition for national security space launches approved by SASC are —

  • Requires competition for launching the payload from mission five of the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program
  • Prohibits the use of Russian rocket engines on EELVs at the end of the current block-buy contract and requires DOD to pursue domestic development of a new “world class liquid rocket engine with a waiver for national security and if space launch and services cannot be obtained at a fair and reasonable price”
  • Requires the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) to develop a program plan to competitively produce by 2019 a new U.S. EELV-class liquid rocket engine
    • the plan must be submitted to Congress by September 30, 2014
    • $100 million is added for FY2015, and $20 million of already appropriated FY2014 funds is designated, to begin engineering design
  • Requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to examine the EELV program’s reliance and risk on foreign sources
  • Requires GAO to examine the cost and pricing accounting methods of the EELV program, and
  • Requires the Air Force to increase competition in the EELV program by at least one in FY2015 “without breaking the terms of the existing block buy” and allows for an additional competition between FY2016 and FY2017 subject to a SecDef waiver that it will not break the block-buy contract

The House passed its version of the NDAA (H.R. 4435) yesterday and it also contains a number of provisions on these topics.   The House and Senate agree on the need for a new U.S. liquid rocket engine.  The House adds more money than the Senate for it in FY2015 — about $200 million ($220 million is added to the Aerospace Propulsion account, but then $23 million is subtracted from “liquid rocket engine combustion technologies and advanced liquid engine technologies” in the same account, so the net addition is $197 million).  Both the House and Senate seem supportive of the December 2013 block buy contract that SpaceX is disputing, though the House more strongly than the Senate.  Both call on the Air Force to provide more opportunities for competition, while the Senate is more proscriptive.

The future of the ORS office itself is a long running debate between Congress and the Obama Administration.  Once again DOD submitted a FY2015 budget plan to zero funding for the ORS office and once again Congress is rejecting that proposal.  The Senate bill adds $20 million for ORS for FY2015 to “enable the program to continue designing a low cost space based situational awareness satellite.”  The House bill adds $30 million.

The Senate bill includes the following other space-related provisions according to the press release:

  • Requires the Defense Science Board to review the long term systems architecture of the space situational awareness sensor system
  • Requires an update of the space control and space superiority strategy pursuant to the Space Posture Review
  • Prohibits funding to store the last Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) weather satellite unless the SecDef certifies to Congress that he intends to launch that satellite and will have sufficient funding to do so in the Future Years Defense Program (that projects future defense spending)
  • Requires a “preponderance” of funds within the Space Security and Defense Program to be allocated to offensive space control and active defense strategies

The House bill also would require DOD to launch the final DMSP satellite.   That and other House space-related provisions are summarized in two previous articles on April 29 and on May 5.

The text of the Senate bill (S. 2410) as approved by SASC and accompanying explanatory report (S. Rept. 113-176) are now posted on the Library of Congress THOMAS website.

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