Op-ed | U.S. Must Pursue True Assured Access to Space

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U.S. space launch has become a controversial issue in some circles as new entrants are forcing the Congress and the incumbents to rethink the status quo. Counter to the narratives advanced by the old guard, this is an amazing story of American competitiveness and innovation. However, it is important to deal with the controversial aspects of space launch using facts.

First, the United States does not have assured access today, as some suggest. Despite the U.S. policy mandate, the nation has not had assured access to space for years because only the Delta Heavy, originally developed by Boeing and now operated by United Launch Alliance, can launch the heaviest national security satellites. Simply put, there is no alternate source for heavy-lift capability. The Russian engine-powered Atlas 5 rocket and the American engine-powered SpaceX Falcon 9 are limited in terms of the amount of mass they can lift to orbit. Given this longstanding gap in assured access to space for all military payloads, the Department of Defense should be grateful for, and supportive of, SpaceX’s self-funded development of a Falcon Heavy launcher that can provide competition and true assured access for every payload class.

Second, ULA’s unilateral decision to retire the Delta medium launcher eliminates assured access for medium- and intermediate-class satellites. This comes after more than a decade of billion-dollar taxpayer subsidies. ULA’s premature retirement of the Delta medium launcher will undermine the nation’s assured access policy. Yet it is important to note that ULA continues to be paid, as it has since 2006, nearly $1 billion every year to maintain this capability. If ULA moves forward with its plans to discontinue this vehicle, then these payments should likewise end. Further, the taxpayers and the Air Force are going to bear an extraordinary cost penalty for sustaining only the Delta Heavy vehicle.

RD-180
A pair of RD-180 engines mounted to the base of an Atlas 5 rocket core. Credit: NASA

Finally, the DoD initially accepted the use of Russian RD-180 engines on the Atlas medium booster under a plan that would result in U.S. production of the RD-180 engine. As the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics during the administration of President George W. Bush, I reaffirmed this plan in a 2007 Acquisition Decision Memorandum that requested a “robust, aggressive, fully funded plan to develop a new engine, co-produce the RD-180, or both.” I noted in that same memo that I was “deeply concerned” with reliance on the Russian engine.

The Air Force failed to responsibly develop a new engine or implement the previous DoD requirement for domestic RD-180 production, creating America’s unacceptable reliance on Russia for its military satellite launch capability. Now, given the radical decline in America’s relationship with Russia, the Congress is legitimately trying to stop the Air Force addiction to Russian engines. It is deeply troubling that prior Air Force space leaders have allowed our space capabilities to become dependent on Russia, and now advocate for that reliance to continue unnecessarily — without objecting to the retirement of U.S.-built launch systems providing assured access.

The Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program was created because of the runaway cost of Titan 4. However, today’s launcher prices are again approaching the prices of the Titan era. The sole-source EELV block buy purchases 36 rocket cores for ULA to launch through 2020. The Senate defense authorization bill would permit ULA to obtain additional RD-180’s for the forecast nine competitive launches — but would limit unnecessary cash payments to the Russian government prematurely. This is a sensible approach that would improve national security and properly motivate the Air Force and ULA to end Russian reliance once and for all for critical DoD launches.

DoD has had virtually no ability to control ULA’s prices in the current ULA monopoly environment. Given the barriers to entry erected by DoD and the Air Force, the nation is fortunate to have new entrants take on the risk of developing new American rockets. ULA’s supporters in Congress might want to consider the capabilities the Air Force has not bought for the nation because of reliance on ULA monopoly prices. DoD officials have acknowledged that SpaceX’s pending certification significantly improved EELV block buy prices.

Falcon 9 rocket with its Merlin engines. Credit: SpaceX
Falcon 9 rocket with its Merlin engines. Credit: SpaceX

ULA wanted the sole-source block buy because ULA is not competitive in the global launch market — forcing DoD to subsidize ULA. In contrast, SpaceX has restored America’s space industrial base and created American aerospace jobs by beating Russian, Chinese and French rockets in the world’s commercial launch market. As a result of its commercial position, SpaceX can never be a ULA-like monopoly provider because DoD will understand SpaceX’s competitive commercial pricing in the global marketplace. The Defense Department can always leverage SpaceX’s commercial pricing and benefit from the industrial stability provided by global commercial production sales.

There is every reason to believe that SpaceX will rapidly recover from the disappointing CRS-7 launch mishap. ULA and its parent companies have recovered from three prior mishaps or significant anomalies on their currently flying EELV rockets and a series of failures on Titan, Delta 2 and Delta 3.

We are fortunate that the current generation of Air Force leaders see the benefits of the opportunity to have a U.S.-built launcher, and the value of true, dual-source assured access for every payload class. Extending reliance on Russian engines achieves none of these objectives.

John Young is a former U.S. undersecretary of defense and assistant secretary of the Navy for acquisition. He is currently the principal at JY Strategies LLC, and he is a consultant to SpaceX.