A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moving to the pad in advance of its April 27 launch of Thales Alenia Space's TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat satellite. Credit: SpaceX

Reality Check Gives Industry, Policymakers Something To Think About

The failure June 28 of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station obviously is a setback for the company and its rapidly growing customer set. It also has implications for a pending congressional decision affecting the future of the U.S. national security launch enterprise.

The setbacks are of course temporary. The space station remains well provisioned despite three resupply mission failures in the span of less than a year. The hardware lost in the accident, including a NASA docking module for commercial crew vehicles and eight imaging satellites owned by Planet Labs — the same company that lost 26 satellites in October’s Antares failure — will be replaced, albeit at some expense.

But the failure, the first in 19 Falcon 9 missions, is not without consequence.

Telecommunications satellite operators have come to rely on SpaceX in recent years due in part to reliability problems with the Russian Proton rocket. A number of them were awaiting Falcon 9 launches this year, and the delays they now face will crimp revenue streams. With SpaceX rival Arianespace booked through 2017 and Proton looking risky these days, these customers have nowhere else to go.

SpaceX, which was just beginning to find its stride in terms of launch tempo, also will lose money, in addition to facing new questions about its ability to keep pace with launch orders. At minimum, company now has a lot more catching up to do.

The stumble also came just when SpaceX, after a hard-fought battle, had finally positioned itself to challenge United Launch Alliance for a share of the U.S. national security launch market. The Falcon 9 only in June earned Air Force certification to launch national security missions.

According to the Air Force, the failure will have no impact on upcoming launch competitions, beginning with a GPS mission slated for award this year. But it has to be considered in the current debate over how to apply the congressional ban on military use of the Russian-built RD-180 main engine that powers ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket.

ULA says it needs 14 more RD-180s for launches beyond those already under contract to stay competitive in the Pentagon market until its planned Vulcan rocket starts flying around 2020. The 2016 defense authorization bill drafted in the House grants that number, but the Senate version draws the line at nine, a number the Air Force says could eventually result in a SpaceX monopoly.

U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a frequent ULA critic, remains dead set against relaxing the limit from nine to 14, citing the imperative to end U.S. reliance on Russian engines as soon as possible. Some have questioned ULA’s seriousness about quitting the RD-180 since the company, in pursuing a brand new rocket — one requiring substantial investment from corporate parents Boeing and Lockheed Martin — is turning its back on what appears to be the less risky option of replacing the Atlas 5’s main engine with a U.S. government-funded alternative.

Much has been made of the supposedly nonnegotiable requirement known as assured access to space, which for the military has come to mean having two vehicle families available in case one is grounded by failure. But the reality is that the Pentagon currently lives with a situation where it has only one rocket available, the Delta 4 Heavy, to launch its biggest and most expensive payloads, and for years tolerated the same for medium- and intermediate-class payloads. Even during the ULA era, when the combination of the Atlas 5 and intermediate-class Delta 4 on paper fulfilled the assured access requirement, there was an extended period in which U.S. government satellites were not launching due to rocket-component reliability concerns.

But the Atlas 5’s record — 55 successes in 55 attempts — is unassailable. Proven reliability doesn’t necessarily meet the classic Air Force definition of assured access, but there’s little question that the rocket has earned its status as the government’s workhorse. The Falcon 9 has been very impressive in its own right, but it’s not in Atlas 5’s class — at least not yet.

No one questions the need to end U.S. reliance on Russian engine technology, but since there’s no alternative rocket with both a track record and price tag comparable to that of the Atlas 5 it seems unnecessarily risky to sideline that vehicle sooner rather than later. This would be true even had the Falcon 9 not failed June 28, but the fact that it did serves as a warning and a reminder that the government would be wise to heed.