Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Late last month Elon Musk announced he was displeased that the US Air Force shut his company, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), out of the competition market for government launches. He was so annoyed by it that he filed a legal complaint against United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) monopoly over military launches.
Less than a week after that filing, a federal court judge filed a temporary injunction against ULA’s acquisitions of rocket engines from Russia. While that ban was uplifted a week later after government documents cleared up some confusion over where the rockets actually came from, some Russian officials subsequently barred any of its rocket engines, including the RD-180 purchased by ULA for US Air Force launches, from being purchased by American companies.
Initially, ULA officials said they had enough engines already in stock to continue launching government satellites for at least two years. But now, it looks like Air Force officials are not taking any chances and moving forward with its plans to open competition for SpaceX.
The Air Force is working as fast as it can to certify SpaceX as a venerable launch provider for the nation’s military and intelligence satellites, according to General William Shelton, who heads the Air Force Space Command.
Gen. Shelton told Reuters that SpaceX was likely to achieve certification by December or January, but the process could not be accelerated given the complex issues that still need to be addressed.
“It’s very difficult to pick up the pace on that,” Shelton said after a speech at a space conference hosted by the Space Foundation. In addition to certifying SpaceX’s three launches, the Air Force was also looking at the firm’s financial and auditing systems and manufacturing processes, he noted.
Shelton maintained that the Air Force remains committed to increasing competition in the rocket launch market and is pressing forward to lower ULA’s launch costs.
THE COST OF BUSINESS
When ULA was launched in 2006 – a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin – the newly formed company was supposed to save taxpayers $100-$150 million per year in rocket launches, according to SpaceX.
However, SpaceX maintained that instead of saving money, rocket launch costs skyrocketed. Musk maintained that since 2006, vehicle costs have climbed from about $100 million per vehicle to more than $400 million per vehicle, making the ULA launch vehicles the most expensive rockets in not just the US, but the entire world.
Musk said that his company could save the government $1 billion a year by moving to SpaceX and its rockets.
Gen. Shelton said that SpaceX could possibly compete for some launches before it becomes certified, with awards contingent on approval. He said the lawsuit was a surprise, given that the military was already dedicating $60 million and 100 people to the certification process for SpaceX.
“Generally,” he said to Reuters, “the person you’re going to do business with, you don’t sue them.”
Eric Fanning, undersecretary of the Air Force, said during a recent conference that the Air Force is committed to increasing competition and determined to drive down the cost of the existing ULA rockets. He added that the Air Force is also reassessing its reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 engines used in ULA’s Atlas rockets, due to the recent issues between Russia and the US — namely the former Soviet Union’s annexation of Crimea.
Fanning said the Air Force is also looking at a number of long-term options, including developing an alternative engine, bringing in new entrants, or increasing use of ULA’s Delta rockets, which do not rely on Russian engines.
Gen. Shelton said he was aware of the recent threats made by some Russian officials that the RD-180 rocket engines would be taken off the market for US buyers, but according to Reuters, he noted that no official position has been conveyed by Russia as of yet.
If the RD-180 shipments did come to a halt, sources familiar with the report noted that it would have a significant impact on the US military launch program. In the short-term, there is no viable mitigation strategy to replace the Russian rocket engines. In the long-term, the Air Force could do well to boost funding to develop a new US engine by 2017, the sources recommended.
Gen. Shelton said he favored the idea of a US rocket engine to reduce reliance on foreign-suppliers. But, he added, it would cost more than a billion dollars and could take five years or longer to complete, and it also remains unclear from where that funding would arise.
He cautioned, however, about reading too much into the Russian comments on the rocket engines, noting that the ties between the Russian engine builder NPO Energomash and ULA were proceeding as “business” as usual, according to Reuters.
While the Air Force remains committed to certifying SpaceX, some feel the recent actions by its founder and CEO Elon Musk may have done more harm than good.
“If recent news reports are accurate, it affirms that SpaceX’s irresponsible actions have created unnecessary distractions, threatened U.S. military satellite operations, and undermined our future relationship with the International Space Station,” Jessica Rye, spokeswoman for ULA, said in an email to Bloomberg last week.
Musk’s actions may have hurt SpaceX’s relationship with the Department of Defense and NASA, according to James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington.
“When you start pushing big boys around, people may not get mad, but they’ll get even,” Thurber told Bloomberg. “Doors will close, and it will make it much more difficult for him in the advocacy world.”
SpaceX, despite its harmful tactics, may not be too worried about making a few enemies. It doesn’t rely on others to build its rockets, its engines or its spacecraft, and doesn’t need to make wealthy partner deals to keep afloat, noted Jeff Foust, a senior analyst at Futron Corp.
“Among the big aerospace companies, the company you’re competing against today you might be partnering with tomorrow,” he told Bloomberg. “SpaceX isn’t like that. They’re not jeopardizing any conceivable business relationship that they might have.”
Still, Musk really wanted a chance to compete with ULA for government satellite launches and, according to his sources, it looked as if the Air Force was throwing him and his company under the rug. Musk maintained that the complaint was only issued as a way of getting his foot back in the door and be able to compete for those military launches, a chance that, according to Gen. Shelton’s comments, was never lost.
As part of his goal to bring competition to the marketplace, Musk is spending more than a million dollars for Washington influence. In his fight for military launches, he has found allies among US lawmakers who also want to see competition open up in the military launch market.
“It’s very clear they made a commitment to increase competition, and then the Air Force reversed itself,” Arizona Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs investigations subcommittee, said in an interview with Bloomberg. “It just doesn’t seem right to me.”
When asked by Bloomberg whether the Air Force might retaliate against Musk following his lawsuit, McCain said that one of his jobs is “to make sure they don’t.”