On National Security | The SpaceX-ULA proxy war is heating up
“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Feb. 25, 2019 issue.
The Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General disclosed Feb. 11 that it will examine whether the Air Force complied with its own criteria for new-entrant rockets when it certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in 2015 and Falcon Heavy in 2018 to carry national security payloads.
Just days before the OIG’s review came to light, two lawmakers supportive of SpaceX asked the Air Force for an independent review of the $3.2 billion in Launch Service Agreement (LSA) contracts awarded in October to help Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance (ULA) develop new rockets.
These events, regardless of whether or how they might be connected, are a reminder of the dog-eat-dog world of military space launch.
For years, SpaceX rivals have complained the Air Force bowed to political pressure in certifying Falcon 9 to compete for national security launch contracts under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. More recently, they have questioned why Falcon Heavy was certified after just one launch.
Deborah Lee James, former Air Force secretary during the Obama administration, toldSpaceNews that while DoD certainly faced pressure from within and without to end ULA’s monopoly on national security launches, the Air Force’s rocket certification process itself is heavily inoculated against to such political interference.
When she came into office in 2013, lawmakers were pushing the Air Force to end ULA’s monopoly by making the Boeing-Lockheed joint venture compete against new entrants, namely SpaceX. Congressional pressure intensified in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea and lawmakers demanded the Air Force end reliance on the Russian RD-180 engines that power ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket. The late Sen. John McCain and others Dueling launch reviews also criticized the Air Force for making it difficult for new entrants. James insisted that despite the complaints, the Falcon 9 certification was done strictly by the book.
Relations with the Air Force suffered when SpaceX sued in 2014 to void the bulk of a block buy the Air Force signed with ULA for the purchase of 36 rocket cores. The lawsuit settled in 2015 with the Air Force agreeing to put additional launches out for bid. SpaceX also balked at how long it was taking to certify Falcon 9. In response, James commissioned an independent review led by retired Air Force Gen. Larry Welch.
The review exposed a cultural gulf between how the government and commercial space industry do business, James said. “SpaceX was ‘New Space.’ We were used to doing things a certain way.” The Welch report recommended changes to “reduce the time frame but not the quality of the certification process,” James said.
Another reality at the time was the high cost of EELV launches. DoD was counting on SpaceX to disrupt the market and bring prices down. That meant accepting risk.
To date, SpaceX has received contracts for nine national security launch missions, including three awarded Feb. 19. In December, SpaceX conducted its first EELV mission, launching the Air Force’s first GPS 3 satellite.
When SpaceX didn’t win an LSA award, some speculated SpaceX didn’t bid since its current development focus is on the exploration-class Starship super-heavy launch system Elon Musk aims to send to Mars.
Then came a Feb. 4 letter from Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican Rep. Ken Calvert, both from California, asking the Air Force for an independent review of an LSA source selection process the lawmaker says “unfairly disadvantages” current certified providers (i.e. SpaceX).
On Feb. 11, the same day the OIG announced its Falcon certification probe, SpaceX protested the $148 million contract ULA won late last month to launch NASA’s Lucy asteroid mission.
Even without an LSA award, SpaceX is eligible to compete for launch contracts in the program’s next phase. But with Air Force officials only planning to buy launches from two of the five contenders, the dog-eat-dog is sure to continue.
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.