GAO Says Competition Key to Building Better Space Taxis for Satellites

Allowing more companies to fight for rocket contracts could lower costs, says the government auditing agency.

WALLOPS ISLAND, VA - SEPTEMBER 6: In this handout image provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory launches aboard the Minotaur V rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on September 6, 2013 in Wallops Island, Virginia. LADEE is a robotic mission that will orbit the moon where it will provide unprecedented information about the environment around the moon and give scientists a better understanding of other planetary bodies in our solar system and beyond.
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Alex Brown
March 12, 2014, 12:50 p.m.

The mil­it­ary could save money if it lets more com­pan­ies com­pete to launch its satel­lites, the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice said Wed­nes­day.

The agency’s Cristina Chap­lain, testi­fy­ing be­fore the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Stra­tegic Forces Sub­com­mit­tee, told le­gis­lat­ors that al­low­ing rock­et com­pan­ies to fight over con­tracts could prove a cost-saver.

“DOD could see fur­ther sav­ings if a ro­bust do­mest­ic launch mar­ket ma­ter­i­al­izes,” said Chap­lain, dir­ect­or of ac­quis­i­tion and sourcing man­age­ment for GAO.

Cur­rently, the United Launch Al­li­ance — a joint Boe­ing-Lock­heed Mar­tin ven­ture — sup­plies the rock­ets for all of the mil­it­ary’s launches. But the De­fense De­part­ment has plans to of­fer bid­ding for 14 rock­ets, al­low­ing com­pet­it­ors to chal­lenge ULA.

Tech bil­lion­aire Elon Musk wants to be that com­pet­i­tion, and he told Con­gress last week that his com­pany SpaceX could save the gov­ern­ment hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars if al­lowed to com­pete.

ULA CEO Mi­chael Gass said his com­pany’s re­li­able track re­cord should al­low it to main­tain pre­ced­ence. The Pentagon will con­sider both price and mis­sion risks when weigh­ing com­pet­it­ors.

Chap­lain’s testi­mony seemed to sig­nal GAO sees value in the more com­pet­it­ive ap­proach Musk is ask­ing for.

“We’ve fi­nally ar­rived at the point where there are oth­er com­pan­ies that can be­gin to con­tend for space launches,” Chap­lain said. “Com­pet­i­tion is on the ho­ri­zon, and it’s a mat­ter of fig­ur­ing out how best to do it.”

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