Senate Armed Services and Commerce Committees to Hold Joint Hearing on Launch Industry

Senate Armed Services and Commerce Committees to Hold Joint Hearing on Launch Industry

Two Senate committees will hold a joint hearing next week on the status of the U.S. launch industry.  “Options for Assuring Domestic Space Access” will feature witnesses from DOD, NASA, RAND and GAO, as well as the chairman of a recent Air Force study on alternatives to Russia’s RD-180 rocket engine and the very recently retired head of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs.

The hearing on July 16 will be co-chaired by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the Science and Space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), chairman of the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Many U.S. space launches take place from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the adjacent NASA Kennedy Space Center on the Florida coast.  Colorado has the nation’s third largest aerospace economy.  It is home not only to a large number of aerospace companies, such as United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) headquarters, but also to military users of space systems, including Air Force Space Command.

The three government witnesses on the first panel are the head of acquisition for DOD, Alan Estevez; the commander of Air Force Space Command, Gen. William Shelton; and NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot.  Lightfoot is the former director of NASA’s rocket-building Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. 

Questions that are likely to arise include the Air Force’s long term procurement plan for launch vehicles and how “new entrants” like SpaceX are — or are not — being accommodated.   SpaceX is trying to get certified to bid for Air Force launch contracts and in the meantime filed a lawsuit against the Air Force because it gave United Launch Alliance (ULA) a sole source contract last year instead of allowing SpaceX to bid on it.  That matter is before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims so it is not clear how far Estevez or Shelton can go in discussing it, but the topic is almost certain to come up.   The Justice Department and the Air Force recently filed a motion with the Court to dismiss the lawsuit.

That contract is for ULA’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs), Atlas 5 and Delta IV.  They are also used for NASA and NOAA satellites, so NASA’s requirements are also an important part of the calculus, especially since two of the three companies it is funding in the commercial crew program (Boeing and Sierra Nevada) plan to use the Atlas V to launch their crew spacecraft (CST-100 and Dream Chaser, respectively).

NASA itself is developing a new launch vehicle, SLS, much more capable than the EELVs.  Whether DOD has any use for that type of capability may also be of interest to the committees.  SLS is being designed to take people beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).  The initial version will be able to take 70 tons to LEO, more than twice the capability of the biggest EELV (Delta IV Heavy), and a future version will be able to launch 130 tons to LEO.  At the moment NASA is the only customer, which means a very low flight rate and high costs per flight.

As critical as the SpaceX and SLS issues are, perhaps of greatest interest is U.S. reliance on Russia’s RD-180 engines for the Atlas V rocket.   With the deteriorating geopolitical situation between the Untied States and Russia, the House recently voted to allocate $220 million in the FY2015 defense appropriations bill to begin a rocket engine development program to replace the RD-180.   The Senate appropriations defense subcommittee is scheduled to markup its defense bill the day before this hearing, and the full committee may be debating it at the very same time.  The White House opposed the addition of the money in the House bill as premature.

In any case, Maj. Gen. Howard Mitchell (Ret.), now with the Aerospace Corporation, is one of four witnesses on the second panel.  He just chaired a study on RD-180 alternatives for the Air Force that concluded there are few good options in the near term.   He will be joined by Dan Dumbacher who retired from NASA on July 1 and is now at Purdue University.  His last assignment at NASA was as Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development — the person in charge of the SLS program and the Orion crew spacecraft it will launch.  Also on that panel are Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) who has extensive experience in auditing and analyzing DOD acquisition of space systems for GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, and Yool Kim of the RAND Corporation.  Kim was one of the authors of a 2008 RAND study on improving cost estimation for space systems.

The hearing is at 9:30 am ET in room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building.  

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