Wednesday’s hearing by the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee on “National Security Space Launch Programs” unfolded, as many expected, as a debate between United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX. ULA defended its work as the only company currently in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, noting its commitment to mission success and its efforts to lower costs to the government through a block buy of Atlas V and Delta IV rocket cores. SpaceX, seeking to gain business from the Air Force, argued that it could provide far greater cost savings through commercial contracts for its Falcon launch vehicles.
However, another factor entered in Wednesday’s debate whose prominence wouldn’t have been expected even a few weeks ago: the potential of deteriorating relations with Russia because of the crisis in the Crimea, with the potential to disrupt supplies of the Russian-manufactured RD-180 engine that powers the Atlas V’s first stage. The subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), raised the issue with ULA CEO Mike Gass, asking him to assess “the reliability of that engine being available from Russia in the immediate future.”
Gass tried to assure Durbin and the committee that the RD-180 would be available for missions for at least a couple years even if the supply of those engines was disrupted. “First and foremost, we have two years of ‘safety stock’ inventory—actually, today we have greater than that—in country, and our ability to launch any of the near-term satellites that we need to do for national security” remains in place, Gass said. He added ULA had “another product” that can launch such payloads, an oddly indirect reference to the company’s Delta IV rocket. “We are not at any risk for supporting our national needs.”
Asked by Durbin about producing the RD-180 domestically, Gass said that ULA had that capability. “We’ve done that over several years, we invested hundreds of millions of dollars to prove that we have the capability to demonstrate our ability to build that exact engine,” he said. However, he didn’t say how long it would take to actually start producing that engine, or at what cost; previous plans to domestically produce the RD-180 had long ago been set aside in favor of simply buying and stockpiling engines built in Russia.
Musk was sharply critical of ULA’s reliance on Russian engines, as well as other components manufactured outside the US, for the Atlas V, going so far to suggest that the vehicle line be cancelled. “In light of Russia’s de facto annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, and the formal severing of military ties, the Atlas V cannot possibly be described as providing assured access to space for our nation when supply of the main engine depends on President Putin’s permission,” Musk said in his opening statement.
Later, he argued that there was sufficient demand to maintain two vehicle families, but not three. “Currently ULA has the Atlas and the Delta, but those are redundant, we don’t need both of those rocket families,” he said. “I think it would make sense, for the long-term security interests of the country, to probably phase out the Atlas V, which depends on the Russian engine, and have ULA operate the Delta family and SpaceX operate the Falcon family.”
Beyond the debate about reliance on Russia (and the, at least for now, unlikely prospect of retiring the Atlas V), the hearing focused on the issue of whether competition could truly reduce costs to taxpayers while ensuring critical military payloads were launched safely. “I believe that leveraging the demand of the commercial sector is smart, but relying on commercial demand to enable national security carries huge risks, both to the rucket supplier and to its government customers,” Gass said, recalling the initial plan to maintain two separate EELV providers, Boeing and Lockheed, based on projections of commercial launch activity in the late 1990s that failed to materialize.
Musk argued that his company’s Falcon 9 could offer launches for $90 million (including about $30 million in military-specific mission assurance costs not charged to other customers), a small fraction of Atlas and Delta costs. (The Falcon 9, though, can’t launch all the payloads carried by the Atlas and Delta, something that SpaceX plans to remedy with the larger Falcon Heavy.) He said the certification process with the Air Force was going well, but was concerned that there would be fewer launches available for competition than previously planned: perhaps only one this year, versus earlier plans for five. “If our rockets are good enough for NASA, why are they not good enough for the Air Force? It doesn’t make sense,” Musk said.
While the hearing wrapped up in less than 90 minutes, the debate is far from over, even for this particular hearing. Durbin said he took the unusual step of asking Gass and Musk to submit ten questions they’d like to ask each other, with their responses to be submitted for the record. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), ranking member of the full appropriations committee, said he would also be submitting additional questions for the record at the end of the hearing.
Gass, at one point, suggested that he would be addressing for the record some comments from Musk he helt were factually incorrect. “I heard Mr. Musk use all kinds of numbers that were categorically wrong, and I’d be glad to share with the committee the right calculation,” he said, without specifying what figures he felt were in error.