Senate Intelligence Committee Supports New Launch Entrants, Some Concerned About Commercial Imagery

Senate Intelligence Committee Supports New Launch Entrants, Some Concerned About Commercial Imagery

The Senate Intelligence Committee is joining the chorus of congressional overseers of U.S. space launch policy and funding in emphasizing the need to let “new entrants” like SpaceX compete for Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office launches.   Some committee members also are unhappy with recent decisions about acquisition of commercial satellite imagery.

The committee released its report on the FY2013 intelligence authorization bill (S. Rept. 112-192) earlier this week.   It said it “believes it is in the nation’s economic and national security interests to promote competition among U.S. space launch providers, and to do so as soon as potential competitors are viable.”  In particular, it noted distinctions between the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program and SpaceX, which wants to compete with ULA for the military’s space launch business.

The committee commented that while SpaceX spent $1.2 billion since 2002 developing the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets, the Dragon capsule, plus associated infrastructure, by comparison the “current EELV launch capability contract totals approximately $1.2 billion per year just to maintain the infrastructure to launch an EELV.” Launch costs are extra, it added.   The committee acknowledged that “costs advertised by new space launch entrants may increase as those companies integrate rigorous Air Force processes” for ensuring mission assurance.  Nonetheless, it made clear its hope that competition will reduce costs while also maintaining “a strong and healthy industrial base.”

In the “additional views” section of the report, five of the 15 committee members — Senators Mark Warner (D-VA), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Mark Udall (D-CO),  and Bill Nelson (D-FL) — complained about recent decisions by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to reduce funding for the EnhancedView contract through which NGA purchases commercial satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe and GeoEye.   DigitalGlobe and GeoEye recently announced plans to merge after it became clear only one company could survive with the reduced government support.

The five Intelligence Committee members said the cuts were made “even before the completion of the Office of Management and Budget-ordered review to determine future needs” and were “in direct contravention of the President’s ‘Way-Ahead’ strategy,” as well the 2010 National Space Policy and the Commercial Remote Sensing Policy.  They added that they were disappointed that their committee did not address the issue in its bill, but hope it will be a matter for consideration during conference with the House.   They also support the Senate Armed Services Committee’s recommendation to add $125 million for commercial satellite imagery.

Senator Nelson had a separate “additional view” stating that the committee had adopted an amendment he offered by a vote of 15-0 that “relates to critical decisions regarding replenishment of our nation’s imagery architecture.  These decisions must not be rushed, and must be informed by a complete and comprehensive understanding of all available options.”  The amendment apparently was to the classified annex to the bill and is not discussed further in the unclassified report.

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