As SpaceX Turns up Rhetoric, USAF Taps Welch for Certification Review

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WASHINGTON — Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Larry D. Welch, a former chief of staff, will lead an independent review of the service’s launch vehicle certification process, which has come under criticism for the time it is taking to certify SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to carry military payloads.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James announced that Welch, who most recently led a study that identified problems with the service’s handling of nuclear weapons, would troubleshoot the certification issue as she fended off public allegations by SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk that the service is dragging its feet to appease its current monopoly launch provider, United Launch Alliance.

In an audio interview with Bloomberg Businessweek Jan. 13, Musk portrayed his Hawthorne, California-based company as a small fighting force going up against Denver-based ULA and the combined lobbying might of ULA’s shareholders, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The Air Force recently disclosed that Falcon 9 certification, which had been expected by the end of 2014, could take until the middle of 2015.

Gen. Larry Welch. Credit: U.S. Air Force
Gen. Larry Welch. Credit: U.S. Air Force

“The people fighting it [Falcon 9 certification to bid for military launches] are really in the bureaucracy of the Pentagon, and the procurement officers, who then go and work at Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the prime contractors — which has actually happened,” Musk said, returning to a theme he has invoked before.

“It’s easy to understand from a game theory standpoint. Essentially we’re asking them to award a contract to a company where they are probably not going to get a job, against a company where their friends are. So they’ve got to go against their friends, and their future retirement program. This is a difficult thing to expect.”

In a press briefing here Jan. 15, James called Musk’s remarks “rather unfortunate.”

“I only wish that Mr. Musk would have said some of this to me directly when I called him to tell him that SpaceX had not quite made it,” she said.

James also shed a small amount of some light on the reasons for the delay. “This is real engineering work that needs to be demonstrated,” she said. “This is not a paperwork shuffle.”

While certification is still “months away,” James said, the end result has become a question of when, not if.

ULA, meanwhile, also took umbrage at Musk’s allegations. “ULA is aware of the comments recently made by Mr. Musk to Bloomberg News and subsequently published in Space News, and we take great offense at his gross aspersions regarding the integrity of our company, its corporate partners, and the dedicated men and women of the United States Air Force that are committed to ensuring the security of this nation,” ULA General Counsel Kevin MacCary said in a written statement to SpaceNews. “More importantly, we believe Mr. Musk’s comments about the case pending in the Court of Federal Claims has flagrantly violated the Court’s repeated admonitions to the parties not to discuss the litigation in the media. ULA has and will continue to respect the court’s direction, and we will not attempt to litigate the dispute in the press.”

SpaceX Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX in April filed a lawsuit challenging the Air Force’s sole-source contract, awarded in 2013, for a large number of rockets from ULA. The judge presiding over that case has directed the parties not to speak to media on the matter.

Musk said the combined lobbying power in Washington of Boeing and Lockheed Martin is such that “if they send them all out, the skies darken. They have entire buildings. We have half of one floor. If this were simply a matter of lobbying power, then we would have no chance.”

Musk conceded that at SpaceX, which has grown to slightly more than 4,000 employees, about one-third of the workforce comes from established aerospace companies including Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Musk said the recent decision by Blue Origin, a company formed by Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, to join forces with ULA to build a rocket engine “is a compliment of sorts [to SpaceX], if all our competitors are going up against us. Clearly there are some strange bedfellows there. I’m not sure Blue Origin understands how stringent the Defense Department’s requirements are for a new engine. They’re really quite intense.”

The Falcon 9 also is undergoing certification by NASA, which expects to have its work done by midyear — in time to launch a U.S.-European ocean-altimetry satellite. The rocket is used to launch cargo to the International Space Station on a commercial basis but has not been certified to carry high-value NASA satellites. While NASA and the Air Force are coordinating their certification processes, these efforts are independent.

In any event, Musk did not mention NASA’s certification process in his interview, during which he also said SpaceX would be creating a satellite design plant in Seattle that will employ about 60 people at the outset before growing to several hundred. The idea, he said, is to shake up the satellite production industry in the same way that SpaceX has shaken the launcher sector.