Congress should encourage, not eliminate, competition in spaceflight

Congress should encourage, not eliminate, competition in spaceflight
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Republicans and Democrats agree that state-created monopolies are typically far from ideal. Unfortunately, however, Section 1615 of one version of the National Defense Authorization Agreement (NDAA) may create yet another government-manufactured monopoly, this time in spaceflight, if the Armed Services Conference Committee does not act. 

The committee, which is currently reviewing the legislation, must take a stand for taxpayers and our national security by striking the language from the bill.

Currently, the United States’ fleet of rockets that delivers national security payload to space, known as the Evolved Expendable Launch Program (EELV), include the Atlas V fleet, SpaceX Falcon 9, and the Delta IV fleet. Due to the age of the Delta IV and the Atlas V fleet’s dependence on RD-180 engines — Russian-made rockets — the DoD is pursuing public-private partnerships to create new replacement engines.


However, to preserve competition, more than new engines will likely be needed. In 2016 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, the secretary of the Air Force and under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics wrote that “extensive design and engineering changes” due to replacing the RD-180 with a new engine would “ultimately result in a new launch system, which would require certification.” By prohibiting the development of new launch systems, Section 1615 will eviscerate the delicate process already being undertaken to create a robust and sustainable replacement for the previous generation of rockets.

The White House “strongly objects” to Section 1615 for this very reason — because it “ignores key recommendations of the committee’s independent panel of experts, who proposed broad funding at the launch-system level.” According to the administration, Congress’ benign neglect of the experts’ recommendations will “limit domestic competition, which will increase taxpayer costs by several billions of dollars through FY 2027 and stifle innovation.” 

Enter Elon Musk and his trio of companies — SolarCity, Tesla, and SpaceX — that have built themselves upon subsidies, tax incentives, and other forms of government aid. Section 1615 will continue that trend at the expense of the American people. To make matters worse, the funds will likely be in vain. The possible SpaceX near-monopoly arrangement could have severe societal costs, draining productivity from an otherwise highly-competitive field. 

Elon Musk’s effectiveness in leveraging these circumstances leaves the American taxpayer footing the bill. SpaceX has proven itself capable of competing with its industry peers. Ironically, SpaceX was heralded for bringing competition to a calcified industry when it burst onto the stage with its cost-lowering Falcon 9 rockets. Now, Musk’s company may be poised to return the industry to another era of stagnation, something that both sides of the aisle should detest.

The Pentagon will still need to rely on Russian engines for the better part of the next decade. One would guess that SpaceX’s next move would be to expedite the expiration of the RD-180s use, as it appears it has tried to do so in the past through lobbying.

Thankfully, Reps. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas) were named to the Armed Services Conference Committee. Both have publicly criticized political favoritism aimed at SpaceX in the past. Even more promising for the prospect of change is the appointment of Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOn steel and aluminum trade, Trumpism still rules Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Pentagon vows more airstrike transparency Schumer strikes deal with House, dropping push to link China, defense bills MORE (D-Wash.) to that committee. This member went so far as to sign onto an April letter to Secretary Mattis to express his support for investing in launch systems through cost-share partnerships. 

Hopefully, these members’ influence will put the final nails into Section 1615’s coffin, because with that language, the NDAA is nothing more than a case study for further failing in government. Congress is becoming increasingly distant from the constituents who placed their faith in them as it becomes intertwined with lobbyists and industry funds. Although both parties say that is time to stop this trend, failing to pass the NDAA without Section 1615 would signal that legislation is again being sold to the highest bidder.

Martha Boneta is the executive vice president of Citizens for the Republic, a conservative nonprofit.