Editorial | Finding the Right Formula for Certification

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U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James was wise to order up an independent review of the service’s ponderous process for certifying new entrants in the national security launch market.

The study was prompted by delays in certifying SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to carry military payloads. Air Force officials, who as of mid-December were still hoping to complete the process by the end of 2014, recently acknowledged that SpaceX would have to wait a while longer, perhaps until the middle of this year.

The delay appears to have held up what would be the Air Force’s first truly competitive launch contract award in some 15 years. Bids for that National Reconnaissance Office launch — presumably from SpaceX and arch-nemesis United Launch Alliance — were due last August and industry sources were expecting a contract award in early January.

In an indication of the scope and complexity of the endeavor, Air Force officials say they have dedicated 150 people and $60 million to Falcon 9’s certification. As of late last year, SpaceX had completed 19 engineering review boards as part of the process.

As he has been known to do, Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, lashed out publicly at the Air Force once it became clear that Falcon 9’s certification would have to wait several more months. In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, he all but accused Air Force personnel charged with certifying Falcon 9 of malfeasance, saying they are dragging their feet so as not to offend a prospective future employer in ULA.

It was vintage Musk, who’s never been shy about offending a major target customer. But in commissioning the certification study, the Air Force tacitly acknowledged that Mr. Musk has a legitimate gripe, at least about the length of time this is taking.

In the Air Force’s defense, it is new at this, or at least very rusty — never mind the reasons why. It’s not hard to see a cultural issue as well: The Air Force is regimented, methodical and generally requires reams of documentation for everything, whereas SpaceX is used to operating in a hands-off environment that fosters speed and agility.

The most basic rule of business — give the customer what the customer wants — might dictate patience on SpaceX’s part, and there undoubtedly are certification requirements on which the Air Force will not, and should not, compromise. But that doesn’t mean the Air Force shouldn’t rethink its own process — it’s not much of a stretch to imagine it being unnecessarily bureaucratic or outdated. The last thing the service wants to do is discourage new entrants or rob them of their flexibility to innovate.

The choice of retired Air Force Gen. Larry D. Welch to lead the certification review is a solid one. Some might question the independence of the former Air Force chief of staff, but Mr. Welch has not shrunk from criticizing the military in the past. Last year, for example, he led a review that identified serious shortcomings in the management of U.S. nuclear forces by the Air Force and Navy, notably including micromanagement and a disconnect between the expectations levied on the operators and realities they faced on ground.

Although it seems likely that SpaceX will have earned certification by the time Mr. Welch completes his study, the exercise will not only help the Air Force update its processes — it’s not inconceivable that another new entrant will come along in the years ahead — but also could identify underlying issues that can undermine progress across the Air Force space enterprise.