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On National Security | The SpaceX-ULA proxy war is heating up

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“On Nationwide Safety” seems in each difficulty of SpaceNews journal. This column ran in the Feb. 25, 2019 difficulty.

The Protection Division’s Workplace of Inspector Basic disclosed Feb. 11 that it’s going to look at whether or not the Air Pressure complied with its personal standards for new-entrant rockets when it licensed SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in 2015 and Falcon Heavy in 2018 to hold nationwide safety payloads.

Simply days earlier than the OIG’s evaluation got here to gentle, two lawmakers supportive of SpaceX requested the Air Pressure for an unbiased evaluation of the $three.2 billion in Launch Service Settlement (LSA) contracts awarded in October to assist Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance (ULA) develop new rockets.

These occasions, no matter whether or not or how they is perhaps related, are a reminder of the dog-eat-dog world of army area launch.

For years, SpaceX rivals have complained the Air Pressure bowed to political strain in certifying Falcon 9 to compete for nationwide safety launch contracts below the Developed Expendable Launch Automobile program. Extra not too long ago, they’ve questioned why Falcon Heavy was licensed after only one launch.

Deborah Lee James, former Air Pressure secretary throughout the Obama administration, toldSpaceNews that whereas DoD actually confronted strain from inside and with out to finish ULA’s monopoly on nationwide safety launches, the Air Pressure’s rocket certification course of itself is closely inoculated in opposition to to such political interference.

When she got here into workplace in 2013, lawmakers have been pushing the Air Pressure to finish ULA’s monopoly by making the Boeing-Lockheed three way partnership compete in opposition to new entrants, particularly SpaceX. Congressional strain intensified in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea and lawmakers demanded the Air Pressure finish reliance on the Russian RD-180 engines that energy ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket. The late Sen. John McCain and others Dueling launch evaluations additionally criticized the Air Pressure for making it tough for brand spanking new entrants. James insisted that regardless of the complaints, the Falcon 9 certification was carried out strictly by the ebook.

Relations with the Air Pressure suffered when SpaceX sued in 2014 to void the majority of a block purchase the Air Pressure signed with ULA for the acquisition of 36 rocket cores. The lawsuit settled in 2015 with the Air Pressure agreeing to place further launches out for bid. SpaceX additionally balked at how lengthy it was taking to certify Falcon 9. In response, James commissioned an unbiased evaluation led by retired Air Pressure Gen. Larry Welch.

The evaluation uncovered a cultural gulf between how the federal government and business area trade do enterprise, James mentioned. “SpaceX was ‘New House.’ We have been used to doing issues a sure means.” The Welch report beneficial adjustments to “scale back the time-frame however not the standard of the certification course of,” James mentioned.

One other actuality on the time was the excessive price of EELV launches. DoD was relying on SpaceX to disrupt the market and produce costs down. That meant accepting danger.

Up to now, SpaceX has obtained contracts for 9 nationwide safety launch missions, together with three awarded Feb. 19. In December, SpaceX performed its first EELV mission, launching the Air Pressure’s first GPS three satellite tv for pc.

When SpaceX didn’t win an LSA award, some speculated SpaceX didn’t bid since its present improvement focus is on the exploration-class Starship super-heavy launch system Elon Musk goals to ship to Mars.

Then got here a Feb. four letter from Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican Rep. Ken Calvert, each from California, asking the Air Pressure for an unbiased evaluation of an LSA supply choice course of the lawmaker says “unfairly disadvantages” present licensed suppliers (i.e. SpaceX).

On Feb. 11, the identical day the OIG introduced its Falcon certification probe, SpaceX protested the $148 million contract ULA gained late final month to launch NASA’s Lucy asteroid mission.

Even with out an LSA award, SpaceX is eligible to compete for launch contracts in this system’s subsequent section. However with Air Pressure officers solely planning to purchase launches from two of the 5 contenders, the dog-eat-dog is bound to proceed.

Sandra Erwin


Sandra Erwin covers army area for SpaceNews. She is a veteran nationwide safety journalist and former editor of Nationwide Protection journal.

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