Silicon Valley CEO Elon Musk is used to red tape interfering with his transportation companies. First, his electric Tesla cars were kept out of states like New Jersey, when the state’s laws barred the company from selling cars directly to consumers, cutting out the middle man at the dealership.
While that suit is pending, Musk is opening a new case against the federal government, which he claims is unfairly excluding SpaceX from competition to launch Air Force and military satellites. Currently, the next round of 36 rocket core purchases are earmarked specifically for United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has successfully completed 9 launches for NASA, though only half of those launches match the configuration required by the Air Force. The Falcon 9 is four times cheaper than the competing rockets from ULA, and SpaceX is working to make their rockets recoverable and reusable with the vertical takeoff/vertical landing system shown below in a recent test.
The bottleneck that SpaceX is facing is a matter of certification. Currently, SpaceX is not eligible to compete for contracts, because the company’s inspection and evaluation by the Air Force is still in process. Musk is requesting that the certification process he refers to as just “a paperwork exercise” be sped up. If the bureaucracy is impossible to rush, he’d settle for it slowing down, and waiting to award the long-term contract until SpaceX is eligible to compete.
After the legacy of the Challenger disaster, it’s understandable that the national space program is leery of embracing the Silicon Valley slogan of “Move fast. Break things.” Although the certification process may be onerous and badly-timed, it is not obvious that these hurdles are more obstructive than helpful.
However, Musk forsees a different danger in delays. In a time of increasing tensions with Russia, Musk believes it’s particularly urgent that America’s national security launches be carried out by an American company. In testimony before the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Musk said:
Our Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles are truly made in America. We design and manufacture the rockets in California and Texas, with key suppliers throughout the country, and launch them from either Vandenberg AFB or Cape Canaveral AFS. This stands in stark contrast to the United Launch Alliance’s most frequently flown vehicle, the Atlas V, which uses a Russian main engine and where approximately half the airframe is manufactured overseas. In light of Russia’s de facto annexation of the Ukraine’s Crimea region and the formal severing of military ties, the Atlas V cannot possibly be described as providing “assured access to space” for our nation when supply of the main engine depends on President Putin’s permission.
Until 2017, regardless of the provenance of parts, NASA will remain dependent on the Russian space program and their Soyuz rockets to ferry astronauts and cargo to the ISS. An all-American industry could give the United States more autonomy in managing launches and logistics.
Ultimately, space exploration is, by necessity, too collaborative for the United States to achieve independence by sourcing their parts differently. Launches and payloads must be coordinated with other nations to keep the International Space Station running. Thus, the ISS was exempted from the recent order for NASA to disengage from their Russian counterparts. Additionally, all nations are forced to work together to manage the proliferation of space junk and mitigate the danger to any nation’s satellites.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX program is unlikely to revolutionize our pursuit of the stars, but the company has the potential to lower the cost of rockets and raise pressure on competing companies to innovate. The Air Force shouldn’t cut corners to include Musk’s company in the newest round of contracts, but, if a small delay or accommodation would allow SpaceX to participate, we may speed up the pace of progress.