Agreement on goals, but no easy answer for future of national security space launch, experts say

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WASHINGTON -— While there’s wide agreement on the end goals for U.S. national security space launch, it’s getting there that’s the problem.

“Everybody agrees on the long term,” said William LaPlante, who served as the Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition during the Obama administration. “Everybody wants something like launch [as a] service, leveraging commercial, two independent – at least – ways to get into space and do it with domestic U.S. technology.”

But getting to those goals is the hard part, and LaPlante warned that people might need to temper their expectations. Everyone has different immediate focuses, and the disparate parts don’t necessarily always align.

“We want competition, we want off the Russian [RD-180] engines, and we want an ability to tap into the commercial market. In the next five years, probably you’re not going to get any of those, and that’s a very, very hard fact to realize,” he said March 23 at “Space Security: Issues for the New U.S. Administration,” a one-day conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Prague Security Studies Institute here. “You can’t get two of those three and I’m worried you can’t get one of those three.”

The Defense Department is moving away from a block-buy model where all launch contracts were given to United Launch Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture established in 2006 at the Pentagon’s behest after it became clear the two launch service providers couldn’t survive as independent competitors.

But DoD is still trying to sort out what exactly it wants to see from a competitive market, LaPlante said, adding that he believes the Pentagon will likely pick on cost for the near future.

“Because [both ULA and SpaceX are] certified, the source-selection criteria ends up coming down largely to a few risk items that are specific to that launch and something called price,” LaPlante said. “The price points are going to be the discriminator the next three years.”

However, there are still areas where the Pentagon can broaden its scope of criteria for launches, said LaPlante, who left the Air Force in late 2015 to become the vice president for intelligence at the National Security Engineering Center, a federally funded R&D center operated by Mitre Corp.

“The next thing, which we have not done, is you could say, ‘Well what is the risk to the schedule?’ Particularly for the national security launches,” LaPlante said. He pointed to NROL-79, ULA’s recent Atlas 5 launch for the National Reconnaissance Office, noting that the early March timing was “very critical” on when the satellite reached orbit.

In addition to a focus on reducing launch costs, there has also been a focus in the launch sector of ending ULA’s Atlas 5 dependance on a Russian-made rocket engine, the RD-180. Both Aerojet Rocketdyne and Blue Origin are competing to be the replacement engine for ULA’s next space vehicle, the Vulcan.

John Schumacher, vice president of Aerojet’s Washington operations, said the company is on pace to produce their AR-1 engine by 2019. Brett Alexander, director of business development and strategy for Blue Origin, likewise said the company is preparing testing firings for its BE-4 engine.

But Alexander also cautioned that the space community must be careful that ending use of the RD-180 doesn’t do more harm than good.

“If ULA is going to be legislated out of using one of their engines and forced to compete, then there’s an obligation, I think, from the national security perspective to maintain an environment where that secret sauce is not lost,” Alexander said. “[ULA] could go away easily and we would lose something. We would be back to a monopoly for the time being, but also we’d lose that heritage we’ve had for 50 years.

The concern over debates and launch is “deja vu all over again,”  added Alexander, who worked for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under the President George W. Bush Administration.

“Every five years we go through this existential crisis on space launch and something fundamentally changes,” he said. “We went through it in the early 70s when we got rid of the Saturn 5 and went to the space shuttle. We went through it in the 80s when the Space Shuttle Challenger accident happened and we took national security payloads off a dedicated shuttle; and then it happened again in the early 90s when we did the [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle] program creation and space launch modernization program.

“It is a precipitous time for national security launch, but it always is and the question is: we went from fully commercial to fully government — where is the happy medium going forward?” he added.

Andrew Hunter, director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at CSIS, said that as the market is maturing and developing very rapidly, people need to stop thinking about launch as just rockets and view it as more of a service.

“That’s a different kind of acquisition strategy than the strategy that says I’m trying to build and fly a rocket,” he said, adding that it involves considering “what kind of risks is the government developing in its acquisition strategy, is the government willing to take, and how does it manage that?”

As long as the Defense Department has two major providers for launch services, Hunter said he could foresee the agency taking an approach similar to how the U.S. Navy purchases ships, an approach he called “allocated competition.”

“They know they want to have two shipyards to build destroyers and they compete between them, but they compete in a pretty low-key way because everyone in the system understands that neither one is going to be allowed to go out of business,” he said. “So they’re kind of competing for market share more than they’re competing for existence or competing in a true head-to-head, winner-take-all fashion.”