Agency estimates federal launch costs at $44 billion through 2018

Image: Antares rising
Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia for its first test mission in April. The Antares program is part of an effort to reduce the cost of resupplying the International Space Station.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department and NASA expect to spend about $44 billion to launch government satellites and other spacecraft over the next five years, including $28 billion in procurement funding, the Government Accountability Office said Monday.

The GAO, a congressional watchdog agency, said it was difficult to determine exact funding plans because both agencies used different accounting methods, but it arrived at the combined total by analyzing Pentagon and NASA budget documents, and looking at funding from other government agencies.

Questions about cost
GAO said the projected funding data was an initial step toward answering a larger request from lawmakers who question the steep cost of space launches, and why efforts to inject more competition have not gotten more traction.

"Defense and civilian government agencies together expect to require significant funding, nearly $44 billion, in 'then-year' dollars that factor in anticipated future inflation, for launch-related activities from fiscal years 2014 through 2018," the agency said in a letter to the investigations subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the investigations subcommittee, and Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the panel, had asked GAO to investigate space launch funding to get a better handle on the overall government effort.

GAO said it would continue to look into the larger question surrounding "impediments to economical procurement of government launch vehicles and launch services."

More competition
The Pentagon and NASA have sought in recent years to introduce more competition to the space launch business, which is largely dominated by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and the Boeing Co., the Pentagon's two largest suppliers.

Orbital Sciences Corp. and privately held SpaceX are trying to break into the market for launching large government satellites into space.

In a letter to the Levin and McCain, GAO said it hoped the aggregated data would help "inform plans to lower launch costs, increase competition, and invest in new programs."

GAO said planned procurement funding of $28 billion accounted for about 65 percent of the total amount through fiscal 2018, with the Pentagon accounting for about $16 billion of that amount.

Combined research, development and testing activities accounted for about $11 billion, or 26 percent, according to the GAO letter. NASA accounts for the lion's share of that projected funding, or $10.5 billion, including about $7 billion on its work on a heavy-lift launch vehicle and the ground systems needed to support human exploration of deep space.