A Fair Launch Services Agreement

June 21, 2019
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The United States desperately needs better military launch vehicles.  So, why are efforts to create them being undermined by politics? 

The heaviest spy satellites are dependent on just one U.S. rocket, the Delta IV Heavy, soon to be retired as too expensive.  Satellites the next tier down have mostly been launched on the Atlas V and its RD-180 first stage engine, although SpaceX is beginning to challenge that market.  The RD-180 is the best rocket in its class.  It is also designed and built in Russia, a nation actively trying to undermine U.S. power.

It gets worse.  The Delta-IV Heavy and Atlas-V are provided by a single contractor, the United Launch Alliance (ULA).  While that fulfills the Air Force’s requirement to have two separate rockets for military launch, it does not constitute effective competition.

The Air Force is under a congressionally-mandated deadline to retire the Russian-built RD-180 for government payloads no later than 2022, replacing it with an American designed and built engine.  Progress is being made, but that goal remains out of reach.  In theory, the all-American Falcon Heavy can lift more than a Delta-IV Heavy, but for various reasons, it is not appropriate for all Air Force spacecraft.

Getting into this bind took decades of bad decisions by well-meaning people.  Rather than revisit the past, the U.S. Air Force is right to move forward on multiple fronts. 

The Air Force is:

  • Incentivizing the development of new large rocket engines by several contractors.
  • Providing openings for commercial companies to enter the government launch market for less critical medium-class spacecraft.
  • Helping Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, and ULA, which rightfully won awards in the National Security Space Launch program (Phase 1) under a competitive bidding process, to develop new semi-commercial rockets.

In Phase 2, two final Launch Service Agreements (LSAs) will be awarded, one for 60% of competed launches over five years, and one for 40%.  All rocket companies can compete, including companies like SpaceX that were not selected in the first round.  The two LSA winners get guaranteed government contracts and additional market share. 

An LSA contract is a must-win priority for each company - and their legislative representatives.  Congressional objections mostly involve the two more commercial providers, Blue Origin and SpaceX.  In a letter dated March 28, 2019, the influential Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith (D-WA), encouraged then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson to “take more time to obtain additional information” and delay the LSA awards.  In June, he proposed legislation to partially address perceived inequalities in LSA, legislation the Air Force opposes.

Not coincidentally, Blue Origin is based in Washington State and needs more time for development.  On the other side is ULA, which only has 12 RD-180 engines left available for government launches.  Any significant delays to the LSA program risk leaving ULA without an engine.  Blue Origin has a stake in ULA, building engines to replace the RD-180, but winning a contract for an engine cannot be as attractive as building an entire rocket.

This high-stakes conflict has only intensified.  According to the trade journal Space News, 28 Federal lawmakers signed an April 12 letter supporting the Air Force’s current LSA Phase 2 acquisition strategy. 

In a February 4, 2019 letter, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Representative Ken Calvert (R-CA) also complained to Secretary Wilson.  They worried that SpaceX, based in California, was excluded from the LSA.  For its part, SpaceX has submitted a formal protest for its lack of inclusion in LSA Phase 1.

While some of SpaceX’s advocates’ points are valid, the clear and urgent need of the Air Force is to quickly replace current launch vehicles with at least two semi-commercial providers.  That is why the Air Force has justifiably been critical of the lawsuit and is pushing to keep the LSA on schedule.  There is no valid reason for a delay as the bidding process was fair and equitable.  At the same time, though, failing to help SpaceX improve its rockets outside of the scheduled LSA awards, especially to stand by in reserve if complications arise with the winners, could tar the Air Force’s NSSL program.  Worse, it discourages private investment in better rockets.  How can that be in the national interest?

There may be a way to square this circle.  Move forward with the LSA as scheduled, ensuring new rockets as soon as possible, while removing Russia from the critical path of launching military spacecraft.  At the same time, help SpaceX work on its new Raptor engine and next-generation rocket, hence continuing to reward private investment. 

Ultimately, it is in the nation’s interest and the Air Force’s to encourage U.S. self-sufficiency through the LSA program.  It is also in the national interest to ensure all market options remain as effective as possible – even the ones that will not be launching rockets for the NSSL.  Dismissing industry players now – particularly ones that contribute private investments – can have severe ramifications later.

Donald F.  Robertson is a freelance space industry journalist based in San Francisco. Further news and analysis can be found on Twitter @DonaldFR

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