The scheduled Oct. 30 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V rocket carrying the Boeing GPS 2F-11 navigation satellite marks a tale of two eras. The Atlas-V on Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) is poised for liftoff at 12:17 p.m. EDT at the opening of a 19-minute launch window, flying in the 401 version with no solid rocket motors. Its $245 million payload is the 11th of 12 GPS IIFs. The final IIF satellite arrived on the Cape earlier this month, and is scheduled to launch on another Atlas on Feb. 3, 2016.
On the positive side, Friday’s launch will mark three Atlas-V missions within the span of a month, two from Cape Canaveral and one from Vandenberg AFB in southern California.
More broadly there have been five years of flawless ULA launch operations to orbit 10 Boeing GPS Block IIF spacecraft using six Delta IVs and five Atlas-Vs. This is part of 100 successful missions flown by the two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle designs since 2002.
ULA also counts in older Delta-II missions, bringing the total GPS navigation spacecraft launched successfully by the company to 59 prior to the Oct. 30 flight.
ULA has taken a celebratory stance in the wake of its 100th success and ULA and Air Force personnel involved in the EELV program of course deserve the highest of praise. But the ULA hoopla in its public statements over the recent past make no mention of the very serious problems and challenges ULA and Lockheed Martin face in the fast approaching new era of tremendously advanced GPS III satellites and how they will be launched—with ULA or SpaceX or both.
Congress, the U.S. Air Force, and ULA are locked in a budget and hardware debate how to extract themselves from a program where costs are soaring and the Atlas-V’s Energomash RD-180 engine production is controlled by increasingly hostile Russia.
The ultimate solution beyond 2020 will be development of the new ULA Vulcan rocket. But to make that transition work, ULA needs to fund as many as 22 more RD-180s with federal money it does not yet have, according to USAF Secretary Deborah Lee James. Another problem is that it’s currently illegal to buy more Russian engines.
If that dynamic situation remains, ULA Chairman, Tory Bruno told a group in Florida last week that ULA will not bid on the GPS III launch contracts, leaving the Air Force with SpaceX as the sole launch provider for GPS III and other military space payloads. The Air Force does not want that to happen.
But Lockheed Martin is also in trouble as lead contractor for GPS III, after the Air Forced switched away from Boeing that built the highly praised GPS 2Fs.
Although GPS III spacecraft are to be revolutionary compared with the IIF capability, the situation with GPS III and its Raytheon led “OEX” ground system is so bad, that throughout the summer the Air Force and Government Accountability Office (GAO) have conducted a deep probe of the program.
What they found is so troubling that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has just given the GPS III program his “America’s Most Wasted” award.
In his Oct. 23 citation, McCain noted that in 2010, after two companies produced prototypes, the Air Force chose Raytheon to continue OCX development, estimated at the time to cost $886 million and be completed within six years. “But poor contractor performance and fundamental weaknesses in DOD acquisition and software development practices now threaten the delivery of OCX,” both McCain and the GAO agree.
McCain says the newly completed GAO report “finds that the Air Force’s GPS III OCX ground-based operational control system is expected to be delivered nearly four years late at more than double its original cost. The contract for OCX program will require an additional $1 billion—now estimated to cost taxpayers nearly $2 billion at completion—and will take four years more than planned to address the preventable management and technical failures.”
Moreover, it is likely the program will experience further delays and waste additional taxpayer dollars because the program continues to suffer from what GAO refers to as ”systemic issues.”
McCain says: “The Air Force proceeded with OCX development without knowing enough to make key program decisions—for example, it picked a design and awarded a contract before formally launching the program. Both the Air Force and Raytheon had a poor understanding of cybersecurity requirements, despite the fact that OCX is critical to the cybersecurity of the entire GPS.”
“OCX—like other DOD programs—must incorporate standard requirements related to cybersecurity, but Raytheon didn’t take that requirement seriously in this case, hoping instead for a waiver, but the Air Force and Raytheon accelerated development even as the program struggled.” McCain added.
“In 2012, despite knowing that Raytheon had serious problems developing software, the Air Force authorized systems engineering activities at the same time as software development occurred, leading to rework and further delays instead of efficiency. In 2013, the Air Force paused to research root causes and fix the program, and subsequently believed it had identified and solved them. Unfortunately, the root cause(s) for software problems remain unclear and present continued risk today,” the Senator said.
“All along the way, the Air Force overstated progress to the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), presenting overly optimistic Air Force cost and schedule estimates that conflicted with independent DOD cost estimates—both of which the OSD accepted without sufficient scrutiny,” both the GAO and McCain agree.
“For the OCX program to succeed and deliver the capability that not just our nation, but the entire world depends on, the management and technical issues noted by GAO must be addressed,” said McCain
“The Defense Department should take immediate steps to identify all remaining developmental challenges, assess whether the existing program of record and contractor are capable of meeting program requirements in a reasonable timeframe and at an appropriate cost, and identify and hold accountable those responsible for program mismanagement,” McCain said in his America’s Most Wasted citation.
The new GPS 2F-11 spacecraft will replace GPS 2R-10, launched in late 2003 on a Delta II into Slot 2 of the E-Plane in the GPS constellation.
The Atlas-V will fly a trajectory directly up the U.S. east coast, overflying Newfoundland prior to release three hours 23 minutes after launch just north of the Antarctic coast south of Australia in a 11,047 nautical mile circular orbit, inclined 55 degrees to the equator.
Follow the launch countdown and liftoff LIVE on launch day HERE.
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