Despite all the talk and money expended in recent years to guarantee that the U.S. government would be able to launch critical satellite payloads in a timely manner, it is painfully clear today that assured access to space is more policy than reality.
It turns out that launch failures and other technical issues — the inevitability of which was a key rationale for the assured access policy — are not necessary to ground a rocket fleet: A labor dispute does the job quite nicely, thank you very much.
At least three U.S. government launches, one for research, one for weather monitoring and one for national security, are on hold due to a Boeing machinists strike that has halted operations of the company’s Delta rocket fleet. These payloads already were delayed for technical and other reasons, but the strike has compounded the situation, and until it is resolved the satellites will remain on the ground.
The result is deferred capability and of course cost growth, the inescapable byproduct of delay . There’s no catastrophe here: delays are part and parcel of the space business. The on-orbit U.S. weather satellites appear to be healthy, and while the national security payload is classified, it seems unlikely that the United States faces some immediate threat because its launch has been delayed.
But what options would the U.S. government have at its disposal if, for example, the strike-stranded payload was an international planetary mission with a three-day launch window and a 10-year wait until the next opportunity? Or perhaps some future tactical reconnaissance or communications payload deemed necessary to support a planned military operation?
Would the president have to order the strikers back to work as he can do to railroad or airline employees, or would the striking unions be left with a very strong bargaining position?
Assured access to space is a worthy goal, but as the strike against Boeing illustrates, it is more than a matter of having technical redundancy. Lockheed Martin’s Atlas 5 is available in theory, but it’s not like the government can just pull one out of the shed and launch one of the stranded satellites. Further, if the Boeing-Lockheed Martin launch vehicle merger is approved by the government, a labor dispute like the machinists strike presumably would ground both the Atlas 5 and the Delta 4.
That by no means breaks the case for the merger. But as U.S. regulators review pros and cons of the marriage, the current situation suggests that they would be wise to give more weight to its economic aspects than to the assured-access side of the argument.