Atlas 5/Cygnus launch photo
An Atlas 5 lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on March 22. The rocket's upper stage burned for more than a minute longer than planned, ULA confirmed March 24. Credit: ULA

ORLANDO, Fla. — The White House has threatened to veto a defense authorization bill in part because of its launch provisions.

In a statement of administration policy issued May 16, the White House said it “strongly objects” to language in the House version of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 4909), citing it as one of several reasons why advisers would recommend the president veto the bill if Congress sends it to his desk as written.

The White House argues that the bill overemphasizes spending on development of a main engine over an overall launch system. It also claims that language giving the Defense Department data rights to launch systems developed under the program is not feasible and could require renegotiation of contracts already awarded by the Air Force.

The House Armed Services Committee voted April 28 to require the Air Force to spend all but 25 percent of its rocket propulsion system development dollars on a new main engine capable of replacing the RD-180 that powers United Launch Alliance’s workhorse Atlas 5 rocket. A pair of amendments pending as the full House prepares to debate H.R. 4909 this week would raise the cap on non-main-engine-related work to 31 percent.

The Air Force, which has said it does not want to fund development of a main engine the U.S. launch industry might not want to use,  recently awarded contracts totaling $130 million in 2016 to Orbital ATK, SpaceX and ULA to work on a new upper stage and next-generation launcher concepts. Aerojet Rocketdyne, meanwhile, was given $115 million this year to develop the AR1 engine that it is pitching as a flexible replacement for Atlas 5’s RD-180.

An earlier draft of H.R.4909 would have required the Air Force to devote next year’s entire rocket propulsion system development budget to building an RD-180 replacement, putting continued funding for the Orbital ATK, SpaceX and ULA contracts in jeopardy.

The White House, however, argues that the even bill’s softened stance is still too restrictive.

“The Committee’s approach overemphasizes one component of a launch vehicle and in doing so risks the successful and timely fielding of new domestic launch systems,” the White House statement reads. “The Administration is committed to developing new American-made propulsions systems as part of these new launch vehicles, but this should be done in accordance with well-accepted systems engineering principles and not arbitrary funding allocations.”

The Air Force aims to certify an alternative to the RD-180-powered Atlas 5 in time to start hauling national security satellites around 2022.  ULA sees the partially reusable Vulcan rocket as that alternative launcher, while Aerojet Rocketdyne maintains that the AR1 — which could also power Vulcan — is the quickest solution for ending dependence on the reliable but politically polarizing RD-180.

The White House, which wants to give the Air Force the leeway to invest in next-generation launch capabilities as it sees fit, also objects to H.R. 4909’s requirement that the Defense Department obtain the data rights to any co-developed launch systems  as a safeguard in case one of the contractors were to go out of business.

“Complying with this direction is not feasible as it would likely require re-negotiation of the current development contracts, thereby delaying the delivery of the new domestic capabilities beyond 2019,” the White House statement says. “Pursuing such robust data rights would also undermine the very nature of the public-private partnerships, require significantly more Government funding, and risk further industry investment and participation.”

The White House also objected to two other space-related provisions in the bill:

  • An effort to move some of the Air Force’s weather satellite mission to the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates the country’s spy satellites. Such a move would “ make integrated sensor collection, mission management, data processing, and forecasting less efficient by segregating overlapping requirements across multiple organizations,” the statement said.
  • Language requiring the Missile Defense Agency to begin the concept definition, design, research, development and engineering evaluation for space-based interceptors. The White House said there is no military requirement for a space-based intercept capability.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.