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Report | Sept. 4, 2020

Evaluation of the Air Force’s Certification of Space Launch Vehicles (DODIG-2020-126)


Publicly Released: September 9, 2020



The objective of this evaluation was to determine whether Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) officials complied with the Air Force Launch Services New Entrant Certification Guide (NECG) when certifying the launch system designs for the National Security Space Launch (NSSL)‑class (formerly known as the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle‑class) SpaceX Falcon family of launch vehicles. Additionally, during the evaluation we expanded the objective to also determine whether SMC officials applied the design validation approach in the NECG to three other space launch providers’ new entrant launch vehicles that were in development: Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, United Launch Alliance, and Blue Origin, LLC. During the evaluation, these three launch providers’ certification processes were still in progress.



The NECG is a technical guide that provides a risk‑based approach that the SMC uses to certify the capabilities of prospective new entrant launch service providers, as well as new launch vehicle configurations proposed by existing launch services providers, to launch safe and reliable national security space missions. The Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) was the first launch service provider to have a launch vehicle certified by the SMC in accordance with NECG criteria. Following SpaceX, three other prospective launch service providers submitted proposed launch vehicles for certification by the SMC in accordance with the NECG—Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, United Launch Alliance, and Blue Origin, LLC.

SMC implements the NECG through Launch Enterprise Directorate Operating Instruction 17‑001, “Air Force Launch Systems Maturity Assessment Process.” According to SMC Operating Instruction 17‑001, SMC officials may certify a new launch vehicle configuration based on a risk assessment. SMC Operating Instruction 17‑001 also states that the NECG‑required design validation assessments should be completed 12 months before the first launch of an operational payload.



SMC officials generally complied with the Air Force’s Launch Services NECG and its implementing instruction, SMC Operating Instruction 17‑001, when certifying the capabilities of SpaceX and its Falcon family of launch vehicles. Additionally, in preparation for future launch vehicle contract competitions, SMC officials generally complied with the NECG to accomplish the design validation assessments of the three other potential launch vehicle providers’ new entrant launch vehicles that were still in development. Those three additional providers were Northrop Grumman, ULA, and Blue Origin.

In May 2015 and June 2018, SMC officials certified two SpaceX Falcon family launch vehicles for NSSL missions. As a result, SpaceX is currently an approved launch vehicle provider. However, based on SMC’s experience with SpaceX, we identified two areas where SMC officials could improve their oversight of future, potential launch vehicle providers and their assessment of launch vehicles with reused components.

Limiting the time to conduct independent verification and validation of a provider’s launch vehicle could constrain SMC in determining whether a launch vehicle can reliably launch NSSL payloads at acceptable risk. Such constraints remain a concern for the SMC’s independent verification and validation of other new launch vehicle configurations that have not yet been certified.

Second, SMC officials did not assess the risk of allowing the use of previously used launch vehicle components on subsequent space launches with SpaceX’s Falcon family of launch vehicles. This occurred because the SMC and SpaceX did not agree to reuse launch vehicle components on any NSSL missions to date although SpaceX’s Falcon family of launch vehicles are designed for reuse. Additionally, SMC officials did not establish standards for assessing the reliability of reusable launch vehicle components until March 2019. If the Air Force intends to authorize SpaceX to include reused launch vehicle components on any future Air Force launch missions, the SMC should be proactive and perform the necessary NRDV assessments in accordance with the SMC launch vehicle reusability standards.


Management Comments and Our Response

In response to the draft report, the Director provided a copy of an Air Force Space Command Instruction that solidified the conditions upon which the SMC Commander makes a certification decision.


Deleted Recommendations

In a draft report provided to the Air Force for management comments, we made two recommendations to the Director of the SMC Launch Enterprise Directorate: 1) develop a plan to review the impact of a potential launch vehicle provider’s noncompliance with negotiated timelines for the delivery of technical data to the SMC in support of flight worthiness certifications for NSSL missions; and 2) develop procedures to complete the mission assurance activities necessary to fully assess the risk of authorizing launch vehicle providers to reuse launch vehicle components on NSSL missions. In addition to his response to the draft report, the SMC Director also provided documentation that was not provided to us during the evaluation. We reviewed the documentation and concluded that, had we received and reviewed the documents during the evaluation, we would not have made these two recommendations in the draft report. Therefore, we deleted the recommendations.


This report is the result of Proj. No. D2019-D000PT-0059.000