The Senate Armed Services Committee completed work this week in closed sessions on its version of the fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorization Bill. While the full text of the bill is not yet available, members of the committee have provided some news about its contents, including provisions regarding development of a new large rocket engine to replace the Russian-manufactured RD-180 and competition for military space launches.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) announced in a press release Thursday afternoon that the Senate’s NDAA authorizes funding for development of a new rocket engine. “Mr. Putin’s Russia is giving us some problems,” Nelson said in the statement. “So we put $100 million in the defense bill to develop a state-of-the-art rocket engine to make sure that we have assured access to space for our astronauts as well as our military space payloads.”
The release doesn’t offer details about that provision, beyond that it would call for that new engine to be developed in five years, similar to what’s in the House version of the NDAA. However, the Senate figure of $100 million is less than half of the $220 million authorized for that engine program in the House bill.
Another member of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), trumpeted in a press release three provisions regarding military space launch that he got included in the bill. One would require “a full and open competition on two satellites that they tried to sole-source,” without identifying the satellites. Another would prohibit future contracts for purchases of Russian rocket engines, while a third calls for an investigation into “undue reliance by the U.S. space industry on foreign suppliers and parts such as engines.”
What the Senate’s NDAA doesn’t do, though, is change the EELV “block buy” contract with United Launch Alliance. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters Thursday that while he supported competition in military space launch, SpaceX was not yet ready to compete since they are stil undergoing certification. “Until they’re certified we want to be able to keep the program going and we want to get the benefit of that block-buy program, four billion bucks savings,” he said, as reported by Breaking Defense. “We try to balance.”
Across the country from Washington, though, SpaceX got some words of support from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. “Launch costs are a huge part of my budget, so the way to drive down cost typically is through competition,” he said in response to a question about launch competition during a speech at the 30th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs on Thursday.
“I do want to give a shoutout to SpaceX,” he added, noting he visited their main factory in California and their launch site at Cape Canaveral recently. “I’ve been tremendously impressed with their ingenuity and drive and aggressiveness.”