Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees met last week to reconcile differences between the House and Senate annual defense policy bills. One controversial issue still before them is Section 1615 of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Agreement (NDAA), which would effectively give SpaceX control of the advancement of new space launch systems, eliminating its competition in a narrow market and handing it an effective monopoly.
Unfortunately, the measure would severely limit the U.S. government's future contracting options, and it would cause prices to skyrocket.
We arrived at this point in large part because of the government's decision, after Russia's annexation of Crimea, to phase out the use of Russian engines by 2022. One of the two most affordable space launch vehicles on the market, United Launch Alliance's Atlas V, uses Russian engines. U.S. Code requires “the availability of at least two space launch vehicles (or family of space launch vehicles) capable of delivering into space any payload designated by the secretary of Defense or the director of National Intelligence as a national security payload.”
But if Section 1615 of the NDAA goes into effect, the U.S. government can only choose between the Falcon 9 and the very expensive Delta IV.
Interests as diverse as the Air Force, the Trump administration, the Pentagon, and former Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ron Paul are united in opposition to Section 1615. The Air Force has said that it would force them to rely on a launch vehicle that is at least 30 percent more costly than others, and that "mandating this arrangement ... handicaps the Air Force’s eyes and ears in space, as the space community is forced to sacrifice on-orbit capability to fund exorbitant launch costs on a Delta IV Heavy.”
The Trump administration added that section 1615 "limits domestic competition, which will increase taxpayer costs by several billions of dollars through FY 2027 and stifle innovation."
In a letter to Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisFormer Defense Secretary Mattis testifies in Theranos CEO trial 20 years after 9/11, we've logged successes but the fight continues Defense & National Security — The mental scars of Afghanistan MORE earlier this April, Ranking House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — The Quad confab The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble House passes sweeping defense policy bill MORE (D-Wash.) along with 20 members of the House of Representatives asked the Department of Defense to maintain the current Air Force plan for space launch development. “Restricting funding only for a domestic engine will result in higher costs for the taxpayer and risks delays in ending use of the RD-180 engine," they wrote.
So who exactly supports the plan? Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainWhoopi Goldberg signs four-year deal with ABC to stay on 'The View' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Meghan McCain: Country has not 'healed' from Trump under Biden MORE (R-Ariz.) is one answer. SpaceX has been exceedingly generous with politicians, including with contributions to McCain's campaigns and donations to the University of Arizona's McCain Institute.
Those who support Section 1615 say there's no reason to fear loss of competition because new engines are already being developed, but the Pentagon has said that creating a substitute engine "would require extensive design and engineering changes, as well as significant dynamic and acoustic testing, and would ultimately result in a new launch system, which would require recertification,” a laborious and expensive process.
SpaceX has been a wonderful addition to a narrow marketplace, but it's not been without its share of failures. Those include the SpaceX rocket explosion in 2015, the rocket satellite explosion in 2016, and its aborted space station docking in 2017. The company also has a backlog of over 70 missions.
Choices in the marketplace help to keep high quality options open and prices low, a fact members of Congress should keep in mind as they consider their options going forward.
Barbara Boland is a former communications director for Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) and former editor for the Washington Examiner. She is also the author of “Patton Uncovered,” a book looking at how Gen. George S. Patton became the most respected and feared American general in World War II.