I am all for being fiscally conservative and use what tax dollars are allocated for space wisely. I am even happy there are groups out there promoting this vision for stability and wisdom of tax dollar use. However, like many other things, I really appreciate when groups do their due diligence to learn the topic they comment on before sending out press releases. Americans for Tax Reform put a posting out this week that, was mildly irritating due to its tone.
Here’s the thing. They are correct to say that people have been trying to politicize the Falcon 9 pad explosion. There are members of Congress that have been doing that. However, SpaceX is also guilty of politicizing their competition and certification efforts as well to gain upper hands in government contracts. If you don’t know where this is coming from and don’t recall where some of this started, watch this hearing from a few years ago.
For those that don’t have the patience to watch the full hearing, Elon Musk and some Senators that are clear supporters of SpaceX (there’s good reason for this too in background discussions I can discuss later) are clearly bashing ULA, while ULA is on defense practically the entire time. They shouldn’t have had to be, as hearings are supposed to be even handed but…in reality…they usually reflect the intent of the majority party Chair and sometimes devolve into show trial like events. Since this time, the label “crony capitalists” have been thrown at ULA and this is unfortunate and sad. Its also terrible research as people like these guys at Americans for Tax Reform who clearly are for SpaceX, forget that ULA is a private company (conglomerate of two companies) too.
They try to link the RD-180 engine to this given ULA launches a lot of payloads on their reliable Atlas V which uses the Russian made engine. The writer apparently doesn’t believe that losing access to this engine in the near term will be a national security risk as hey uses the term “may” to describe it. Let me set this straight…until SpaceX can meet all the requirements needed for national security and intelligence payloads, they will not get the contracts. Mission assurance may not be important to Elon Musk as his goals are to get to Mars, but they are important to the NRO and the USAF. They have critical sets of missions to complete for the country and blowing up on the pad or in flight is not a good option. The RD-180 engine, and ULA were created during a specific time period for specific geopolitical reasons that were sound at the time. It is right to question the plan’s usefulness now and ULA appears to see the need to become more commercial in scope and move beyond the single source for government launches, while SpaceX has become a certified entrant.
I agree that its unwise to question the certification just because something blows up. Things happen. But..Congressional monitoring and comment on a rocket that some want to replace Atlas with entirely is something that is totally within their rights as overseers of the taxpayer dollars. SpaceX is not pure commercial launch…they make most of their money with government contracts to ISS and are now just getting into the commercial launch market and doing well with support coming from big guns like SES Global. ULA is showing its visionary capacity with their hopes for using their new rocket Vulcan and others to move people into space.
It is unwise to have only one “game in town” for launching things into space. That is what was going on with ULA was founded to correct by having two launchers capable of moving things into orbit. Having SpaceX and other entrants is great, but performance matters. If ULA can keep up the stellar record and SpaceX keeps having mishaps, it could prove problematic for their garnering future government national security contracts. Those contracts are there so that Elon can build his Interplanetary Transit System. Throwing names out like “crony capitalists” is not productive and groups like this should support using tax dollars wisely and stop trying to be so obviously one sided.