As rocket wars wage in DC, a cautious move towards competition makes sense
When it comes to American access to space, the margin for error approaches zero. Unfortunately, that’s about the only point where Congress agrees right now when it comes to America’s military launches.
Rocket wars are raging in Washington, and they’re launching arguments with significant national security implications.
On the one side are Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Dick Durbin D-Ill.; on the other is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Most elected officials seem to fall in one of two corporate camps. Shelby and Durbin, for example, generally back the United Launch Alliance (ULA), and McCain is similarly supportive of SpaceX. Parochial economic interests play an important part as well. For instance, Shelby represents 850 or so employees at ULA’s Decatur, Alabama, assembly facility. You can bet they’re paying attention to the current policy debate.
ULA and SpaceX aren’t exactly household names. ULA is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing that’s held a virtual monopoly on military space launches from its creation in 2006 until the U.S. Air Force awarded SpaceX a GPS satellite launch contract in 2016. SpaceX is the brainchild of PayPal co-founder Elon Musk who also serves as CEO of Tesla Motors and chairman of SolarCity.
For these companies, billions of dollars are at stake, and SpaceX is pulling out all the stops to break into ULA’s market dominance.
To put it mildly, the policy battle is about as complicated as the rocket science behind the companies.
To ULA’s credit, the company has successfully launched more than 100 rockets without incident. But they’ve also been given vast resources to do so. For example, McCain refers to ULA’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) launch capability contract as “$800 million to do nothing.” That’s not exactly fair, since the contract gives the Air Force tremendous launch flexibility, but $800 million a year effectively to be ready to launch seems tremendously generous.
The EELV contract also points to the problem with a lack of competition: We don’t actually know if the price is right. ULA could be helping the Air Force realize significant savings. Taxpayers and legislators simply don’t have a competitive comparison to know whether that’s true. According to a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report by Steven Hildreth, “Much of the detailed cost data are proprietary, not readily comparable, and some are speculative to the extent that there is little operational empirical data on which those costs are provided.” In other words, ULA essentially holds a “just trust us” relationship with the federal government.
The tax dollars have, however, generated an impressive track record that ULA supporters are happy to contrast with SpaceX’s relatively few launches. In particular, ULA proponents point to a total mission failure experienced by SpaceX in 2015, when a Dragon rocket disintegrated as it carried cargo to resupply the International Space Station (ISS).
ULA’s pristine track record is due in large part to its creation after the companies that formed it worked out the kinks. For example, the United States lost three military satellites due to failed launches from 1998 to 1999, at a cost exceeding $3 billion. One of those, a failed Titan IV (Lockheed) launch in 1999 carried a critical national security communications satellite. The communications capability it would have provided wasn’t replaced until 2010.
SpaceX bounced back from the 2015 launch failure with flair. It stuck the landing of a Falcon 9 rocket booster on a drone ship at sea after a successful ISS resupply launch.
The upstart rocket company isn’t content with ULA’s table scraps either, and they’ve proven willing to punch the incumbent ULA square in the nose on everything from litigation to public relations.
Stick with me here, because this isn’t going to get less complicated. Rockets are made of two basic pieces: the vehicle and the engine. ULA’s Atlas V rocket uses a Russian-made engine called the RD-180. The engine is the progeny of efforts to keep Russian scientists U.S.-focused after the Cold War. For the better part of a decade, the engine’s use wasn’t particularly controversial. Then Vladimir Putin happened.
In May 2014, Putin’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, engaged in a little saber-rattling by announcing, “Russia will ban the United States from using Russian-made rocket engines for military launches.” Back to the point about ensuring American access to space. If Russia made good on its threat, the lack of RD-180s would effectively ground ULA’s Atlas V rockets. As a result, the United States has been forced to rethink its dependence on the RD-180.
In a politically savvy move, SpaceX and its proxies are hammering ULA as a cronyist propping up the Putin regime with purchases of the Russian engines. Obviously, it’s not a disinterested argument since SpaceX isn’t lobbying to end the billions the United States spends on importing Russian oil, crustaceans, weapons and other items. The United States isn’t going to make or break Putin with our rocket purchases, but he does appear to have a potential avenue to hamper our military’s space access if he’d like.
SpaceX allies want to curb purchases of the RD-180, and it’s not simply a matter of patriotism. Wouldn’t you like to start a race by literally having officials limit the use of or ban altogether your chief competitor’s engine? That’s a serious leg up if you can swing it. ULA obviously has a different perspective. They’d like to see a domestic replacement of the RD-180 developed, while phasing out the Russian engine over a longer period of time.
In the interim, SpaceX supporters have argued that the Air Force could end reliance on the RD-180 by using SpaceX’s Falcon 9s to handle the majority of national security payloads and ULA’s Delta IV rocket for the rest. That argument conveniently ignores that the Delta IV is significantly more expensive to launch than the Atlas V, because it’s designed for the military’s heaviest payloads.
According to the Hildreth CRS report, “Even with a smooth, on-schedule transition away from the RD-180 to an alternative engine or launch vehicle, the performance and reliability record achieved with the RD-180 to date would likely not be replicated until well beyond 2030.” In short, the RD-180 is a reliable engine, and it’s probably not going to be easy to replace quickly.
The report also notes several factors in the rocket wars that could ultimately undermine American access to space: RD-180 access ends, ULA discontinues the Delta launch vehicle, either ULA or SpaceX have trouble certifying their next generation of launch vehicles or ULA’s next generation engines aren’t developed in a timely fashion.
Those conditions represent plenty of room for potential error on launches that America needs to be almost as certain as death and taxes.
In spite of the complexities, competition is almost always good for the folks paying the bill – in this case, the U.S. taxpayer. At the same time, we should be sure we’re able to reliably ensure continued access to space before shifting the playing field. It’s a tough call for Congress and the president to determine what that transition looks like, because it’s a high stakes market with few customers and even fewer vendors.
The rocket wars also raise significant questions about defense and national security procurement. We have a habit in defense procurement of paying multiple companies to develop a product that they then sell to us. Cozy corporate relationships with the Pentagon are seldom in the taxpayers’ interest. In spite of how our nation has operated for quite some time, national security and fiscal prudence aren’t mutually exclusive, even with the capital-intensive nature of projects and the need for confidentiality.
The rocket wars will likely continue, but heading toward competition is likely more important than the specifics of how we get there or how long it takes. We need a more competitive rocket market, a smarter acquisition strategy and downward pressure on the costs being born by taxpayers. ULA will have serious competitive advantages as the market incumbent and their rockets may well be able to produce the best results for our nation. Rather than taking ULA’s word for it, the company should have a chance to prove it with a competitor like SpaceX increasingly nipping at its heels.