McCain defends SpaceX after rocket explosion

McCain defends SpaceX after rocket explosion
© Greg Nash

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump's dangerous Guantánamo fixation will fuel fire for terrorists Tech beefs up lobbying amid Russia scrutiny Ad encourages GOP senator to vote 'no' on tax bill MORE (R-Ariz.) defended SpaceX on Monday after its Falcon 9 rocket exploded two minutes after a launch over the weekend. 

"I am confident that the that this minor setback will in no way impede the future success of SpaceX and its ability to support U.S. national security space missions," he said in a statement, noting the company has previously launched seven successful trips. 

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The failed launch on Sunday occurred amid a larger debate among lawmakers over whether the Pentagon should be allowed to continue using rockets made by United Launch Alliance, which rely on Russian-made engines, or begin using rockets made by SpaceX. 

SpaceX, a private company founded by Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, was certified just last month by the Air Force to launch national security missions, breaking a monopoly held by ULA, a Lockheed-Martin and Boeing joint venture. 

The Pentagon argues that ending use of the Russian-made engines before ULA could find an alternative, or before SpaceX is ready to fulfill certain missions, could create multi-year gaps in its ability to launch national security payloads. 

They also argue that doing so could reduce competition, by forcing the military to go from relying on ULA to SpaceX, eliminating the competition that SpaceX's certification was intended to produce. 

Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said on Monday that the SpaceX explosion “underscores the reason that we've been adamant about maintaining assured access to space through the use of two independent launch capabilities.” 

Proponents of using SpaceX rockets, including McCain, say ending reliance on Russian-made rockets is important, in light of Moscow's renewed aggression in Ukraine. 

The fight will play out as House and Senate Armed Services Committee lawmakers combine their defense policy bills together during closed-door conference talks.  

The Senate's 2016 National Defense Authorization Act would allow the Pentagon to use no more than nine rockets with Russian-made engines and end reliance on them by 2019, while the House's version would allow the use of up to 14 for $300 million and extend reliance for another eight years, according to McCain. 

"With Russian troops still occupying Ukraine and killing its citizens, I will continue to oppose language currently in the House defense authorization bill, which guarantees that $300 million of taxpayer money will go to Vladimir Putin, his cronies, and the Russian military industrial base," McCain said. 

McCain also said in his statement that some would seek to leverage the failed launch to argue for "deepening America's dependence on Russian rocket engines for national security space launches."  

But, he added, "This mishap in no way diminishes the urgency of ridding ourselves of the Russian RD-180 rocket engine." 

"The Department of Defense will continue to have two launch providers until at least 2018, if not later," McCain said. 

"If that competitive environment were placed at risk in the coming years, I am confident the Congress could revisit this issue in order to mitigate any national security impacts," he said. 

McCain said he would be closely monitoring the outcome of the SpaceX investigation, characterizing going to space as a steep challenge.

"Space is still hard, and challenges like these serve as a reminder that space launch remains a very high-risk endeavor requiring unwavering perseverance and utmost dedication among the select few who strive to one day make it commonplace, reliable, and affordable," he said.