Editorial: Lousy Planning

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The U.S. Air Force no doubt has sound operational reasons for asking Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) to consider moving its nascent launch operation to a different location at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., but the timing of the request is puzzling, to say the least.

After all, SpaceX is just a few short months away from inaugurating its Vandenberg pad with the launch of the Defense Department’s TacSat-1 satellite in what previously was to be the debut mission of the company’s Falcon 1 rocket. In fact, had it not been for delays to a classified payload to be launched from a different pad at Vandenberg, the TacSat-1 satellite might already be in orbit.

But the Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office are not comfortable with launches taking place at facilities where critical, and very expensive, national security satellites are awaiting launch from nearby pads. So the lower-priority TacSat-1 launch must wait until the classified payload is safely in orbit. As a result, the Falcon 1 is now slated to debut from the Kwajalein Atoll carrying another payload.

Similar concerns are behind the Air Force’s pressure on SpaceX to vacate its yet-to-be-used Falcon 1 pad at Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex (SLC) 3 West. That pad is adjacent to the Atlas 5 pad at SLC-3 East, and service officials worry that a Falcon 1 accident could damage that pad and interrupt launches of national security satellites.

If the danger is real, then there can be little argument that SpaceX has to move: Even the company’s founder and president, Elon Musk, readily concedes that the payloads to be launched from the Atlas 5 pad at Vandenberg are far more important to U.S. national security than those launched aboard the much smaller Falcon.

But that doesn’t change the fact that SpaceX was awarded a five-year license to use SLC-3 West back in November 2003, and has invested some $7 million in the site. The Air Force, meanwhile, has known since before that license was granted — July 2003, to be more precise — that Lockheed Martin would be establishing an Atlas 5 launch operation at Vandenberg, most likely at SLC-3 East.

So why, then, did the service grant the license in the first place? And why did it stand by for nearly two years while SpaceX spent the time and resources necessary to get the pad into shape to support Falcon 1 operations? Other than a simple bureaucratic snafu, there is no readily apparent explanation.

If SpaceX is forced to move to Vandenberg’s SLC-4, the suggested alternative site, the Air Force must fully compensate the company both for its original investment and for the additional work that might be necessary. And since Congress, as the steward of U.S. taxpayer dollars, will have to sign the check, it would be wise to demand a review of Air Force procedures for licensing out assets at its launch facilities to determine whether any changes are warranted.