NASA needs to budget for alternative to Delta rocket, study finds



NASA will stop using the workhorse Delta II to carry satellites and other science missions into space in October 2011 because of the unmanned rocket’s high cost, but has yet to analyze all the costs of certifying an alternative, which could delay some future science missions, a Government Accountability Office report found.

NASA has shared the Delta II infrastructure costs with the U.S. Air Force until the service ended its use of the rocket in August 2009. The space agency plans to use the Delta II to launch three remaining science missions, and the estimated infrastructure costs are more than $45 million annually, the GAO said.

Looking ahead through 2020, NASA says about 40 percent of its science missions will need a medium-class rocket like the Delta II. NASA wants to leverage its investments in the Falcon 9 and Taurus II – unmanned rockets the agency plans to use to resupply the international space station – to negotiate discounted prices for a rocket that could also be used for science missions. Falcon 9 is made by Space Exploration Technologies and Taurus II is produced by Orbital Sciences Corp.

“An affordable and reliable medium launch capability is critical to NASA meeting its scientific goals. NASA has a plan in place for obtaining this capability through Orbital and SpaceX’s vehicles, but past experience with other development programs and recent history with both vehicles indicate that maturing and certifying these vehicles for use by science missions is likely to prove more difficult and costly than currently anticipated,” the GAO report said.

The watchdog urged NASA to “perform a detailed cost estimate to determine the likely costs of certification and the trade-offs required to fund these costs” with the Falcon 9 and Taurus II rockets. “The estimate should also examine the costs associated with delaying science missions if necessary until launch vehicles are available or contingencies such as selecting more costly or time-consuming launch options,” it said.

In a response included with the GAO report, NASA agreed with the need to develop detailed cost estimates and to budget extra money for unknown costs that may arise during the certification process. The agency also said it would use the estimates to budget for certification costs and potential contingencies in future budgets.

FAST FACT: The Delta II rocket has been used by NASA since 1998, and has been supplied during the past decade in fixed price contracts with the United Launch Alliance, an entity operated by Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.

Following are other new watchdog reports released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), various federal Offices of Inspector General (OIG), and other government entities. Congressional Research Service reports, which prepared for lawmakers but not made public, were provided by the Center for Democracy and Technology.


  • A rising number of prosecutions and settlements show the Obama administration's interest in using the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to curb overseas bribery by American companies, and some lawmakers want to ban convicted companies from receiving government contracts. (Congressional Research Service)


  • The definition of "biomass" has evolved since 2004 in the U.S. tax code and other laws but a major disagreement exists over use of biomass from federal lands. Critics say its removal might lead to ecological harm but advocates say biomass from federal lands could help boost U.S. production of renewable energy to meet federal mandates and also protect forests from wildfires. (Congressional Research Service)


  • A review of IT security in the U.S. Patent Office, NOAA, and several other Commerce Dept. agencies showed a “considerable likelihood of a security breach,” poor management of software patches, and system components configured in a way that is not secure (OIG).

Care about freedom of the press? Support independent investigative journalism.

Donate now
Donate now