A hearing several days ago held jointly by subcommittees of the Senate Commerce Committee and Senate Armed Services Committee on space access issues covered two of the key issues facing that topic in recent months: developing a domestic replacement for the RD-180 and competition for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) missions. However, members showed little consensus on how to deal with either issue.
“It’s time for us to rise to the occasion and fix this situation,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) during a line of questioning about use on the Russian-built RD-180 engine and proposals to develop an American replacement. “That’s just not acceptable,” he said of the current reliance on the RD-180.
During the hearing, Defense Department witnesses, including Air Force Space Commander head Gen. William Shelton and Alan F. Estevez, principal under secretary of defense for acquisition, reiterated previous estimates of the time and cost of building an RD-180 replacement: five to eight years, and one to two billion dollars. That timeline, at least, didn’t make Sessions happy. “Well, that’s not acceptable,” Sessions said when Estevez gave the schedule estimate. “Why don’t we get busy and get this done and not drag it out?”
Other senators, though, were less impatient. “This strikes me as a low-risk, high-consequence kind of situation,” said Sen. Angus King (I-ME) of the possibility of Russia cutting off RD-180 exports.
“There’s no indication that we’d be cut off today,” Estevez responded. “There’s a good rationale for why we would move down the path to develop our own engine. However, while we’re doing that, use of the RD-180 engine is a cost-effective and proven way to launch our national security payloads.”
“It is also fairly clear that Roscosmos certainly doesn’t want to give up that income stream, and it looks like that, from their standpoint, they clearly want to continue to supply the RD-180,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said. In general, though, committee members appeared to support the idea of funding the start of development work on an RD-180 replacement, although there’s no consensus on how much to spend in fiscal year 2015: proposals have ranged from $25 million in a Senate defense appropriations bill approved by the appropriations committee last week to $220 million in the House defense appropriations and authorization bills.
Senators also used the hearing to discuss competition in the EELV program, including the “block buy” contract awarded to United Launch Alliance and SpaceX’s protest of that award. That block buy, said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), “may have made economic sense during the global environment at that time, and resulted in meaningful savings to the American taxpayer, $4.4 billion. Although well-intentioned, the unintended consequences of relying on a foreign supplier for critical national security equipment is now striking apparent.”
Cruz stopped short of calling for the block buy contract to be altered or cancelled, although later in the hearing he asked Shelton how long it would take to certify SpaceX’s Falcon 9 if the Air Force moved at “maximum speed.” Shelton noted that if everything goes “extremely well” that SpaceX will be certified by late this year, although the Falcon 9 v1.1 cannot handle launches that would be assigned to seven of ten existing Atlas V configurations. Shelton also said that the Air Force will spend between $60 and 100 million on that certification process.
SpaceX’s dispute with the Air Force provided fireworks late in the hearing, when Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who left after opening statements and returned near the end of the two-hour hearing, fired off a line of questions to Shelton. He brought up a comment Shelton made in May about the SpaceX suit: “Generally, the person you want do business with, you don’t sue them.”
“Do you stand by that statement?” McCain asked. When Shelton said he did, McCain then asked about a ULA suit against the Air Force about recovering costs. “If some company or corporation thinks they are not being fairly treated, you don’t think they should be able to sue? I mean, that’s not our system of government, Gen. Shelton. I don’t really get your statement except that it shows real bias against the ability of any company or corporation in America to do what they think is best for their company or corporation.”
McCain appeared to liken the EELV block buy contract to the Air Force tanker contract scandal of the early 2000s. “People went to jail. People were fired,” he recalled of that controversy. “I don’t like this deal,” he said of the block buy EELV contract, complaining that only a handful of launches would be available for competition.