Midterm Elections Could Shape the U.S. Launch Debate

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WASHINGTON — The debate over national security launch policy that has all but consumed U.S. congressional defense committees for the past six months could shift after November’s midterm elections, with the direction depending on the outcome.

Republicans hope to win enough seats to gain a majority in the Senate, a move that could affect decisions on how to introduce more competition into the U.S. Air Force launch program and wean the service from the Russian-built engine that powers the first stage of the Atlas 5, one of two workhorse vehicles operated by United Launch Alliance. The company currently dominates the U.S. government — particularly the national security — launch market.

If Republicans win the majority, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) likely would take the chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank here. McCain has been a powerful and persistent competition advocate and critic of ULA in the past two years.

In April, McCain asked the Defense Department’s inspector general to investigate an Air Force decision to reduce the number of competitively awarded contracts in its main satellite-launching program. In June, he asked the Pentagon’s acquisition czar whether the Defense Department is overpaying for the Atlas 5’s RD-180 engine.

If Democrats hold on to their majority, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) is likely to chair the Senate Armed Services Committee, whose current chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), is retiring, Eaglen said.

The military space community is also watching the Colorado U.S. Senate race, which features incumbent Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat, facing off against Cory Gardner, a Republican House member representing the Greeley, Colorado, area.

This race, combined with the possible Republican takeover of the Senate, could have implications for Denver-based ULA, along with various national security activities.

Udall is chairman of the Senate’s Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, which oversees military space and missile defense programs. He is also a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which oversees the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

Gardner, who is not assigned to any House defense committees, signed a letter, along with Reps. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), asking NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to provide information on what they characterized as an “epidemic of anomalies” on missions performed by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, California.

SpaceX is pushing hard to break ULA’s virtual monopoly in the U.S. national security launch market.

Brendan Curry, vice president of Washington operations at the Space Foundation, which is based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said the race is likely the most “space-centric” of this year’s midterm elections.

In recent weeks, Gardner has taken a slight lead in the polls and is up about 1.5 percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics.com. The site classifies the race as a toss-up. The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics moved the race from “leans Democratic” to “toss-up” Oct. 2.

Udall’s panel drafted one of the more controversial pieces of space-related legislation this year in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act. Language in the bill, known as Section 1623, calls for an end to buying launch supplies from Russian companies.

The language has caused consternation among some in the military space community who fear it could immediately hamper the Defense Department’s ability to launch satellites. The Satellite Industry Association, a trade group here whose members include Boeing and Lockheed Martin, who jointly own ULA, opposed the legislation in a letter to Senate committee members.

In a July 15 Twitter post, Gardner said the language would “shut down” ULA and noted that “space jobs” are crucial to Colorado’s economy.

The language is expected to be a bone of contention when selected Senate and House lawmakers meet in conference to try and finalize the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015, House members have said.

Colorado is home to some 400 space companies and more than 170,000 space-related jobs.  The average salary for a space industry employee in Colorado is $134,624, according to the 2014 edition of The Space Report, an annual industry update published by the Space Foundation.