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Department of Defense raises no issues with U. S. Air Force’s certification of Launch Vehicles

The Inspector General (IG) of the Department of Defense (DoD) carried out a year-long investigation into the United States Air Force procedures used in the certification of rockets’ safety and reliability that carried government satellites to the Earth’s orbit. The IG commenced the inspection back in February 2019, specifically examined the compliance of the Air Force guidelines and policies followed during certification of SpaceX’s rockets designed to carry state security payloads. Randolph Stone, the Assistant Inspector General (AIG), released the investigation’s final report on September 9. The AIG is in charge of assessment for space, intelligence, engineering, and oversight.

The comprehensive report documented the agency’s full responsibility for lift-off vehicle certification conducted within the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMSC). All inspection procedures on launch vehicles adhered to the Air Force’s New Entrant Certification Guide (NECG) when it gave the green light for SpaceX’s family of Falcon rocket launch vehicles. No credible information sources disclosed the reason that prompted the DoD oversight agency’s review exercise. Usually, Inspector General investigations are instigated by whistle-blowers who file complaints or a directive from a Congress member.

The IG’s assessment of the Space and Missile Systems Center’s certification of state security launch vehicles ended in December 2019. Three more space launch companies submitted their entrant launch vessels for accreditation. These space exploration cooperations requested certification as part of the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 procurement competition requirement. The launch vehicles certified were Northrop Grumman’s OmegA, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur, and Blue Origin’s New Glenn.

Even though the Inspector General’s final report never identified issues with the SMSC’s validation process found a few faults in the initial report draft. The Air Force wrote a letter on July 22 that submitted the results documented in the draft report, contradicting the Inspector General’s final assessment report. Consequently, the IG’s documentation never recommended modification on the SMSC’s review and validation processes. 

After the Air Force receives the draft report, the document needed support information. Colonel Robert Bongiovi, the director of Space and Missile Systems Center, presented additional documentation that the SMSC never submitted during the inspection. Bongiovi’s letter dated July 22, showed the director’s concerns regarding the GPS 3 launch and the challenges in conducting the mission. 

In summary, it is uncertain as to whether the Air Force conducted certification procedures on previous SpaceX rocket boosters and their hardware for NSSL missions. The next phase seeks to address all these issues in readiness for the Phase 2 selection of space launch companies and agencies.