Congress, Lobbying

Alabama businesses support launch competition

In a letter earlier this month to several members of the state’s Congressional delegation, a group of Alabama aerospace suppliers expressed their support for greater competition in the launch industry, without mentioning the company that could benefit the most from such competition.

“As Alabama-based suppliers to our country’s leading providers of space launch services, we write to encourage your support of expanding America’s industrial aerospace capacity through competition, technology innovation, and new entrant companies who have chosen us as key suppliers for their innovative products,” stated the August 1 letter on the letterhead of Industrial Manufacturing Specialties of Decatur, Alabama. The letter, signed by executives of five other north Alabama aerospace suppliers, was sent to the office of Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), with copies to the state’s two senators, Richard Shelby (R) and Jeff Sessions (R), and to Reps. Mike Rogers (R-AL) and Robert Aderholt (R-AL).

“We especially want to emphasize that commercial space transportation and ‘traditional’ aerospace both contribute significantly to suppliers like us,” the letter continues. “We hope you agree with us that competition and a broader overall set of industry players increase our business, as our products see a wider set of buyers.”

The letter does not name any of the “space launch services” companies they work for, although the websites of several mention working for United Launch Alliance (ULA) and the two aerospace companies that co-own the joint venture, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. At least one, Cimarron Composites, mentions several NewSpace companies on its client list, including Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic, alongside more traditional aerospace companies like Aerojet Rocketdyne, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin.

Alabama, of course, is home to the major production facility for ULA, and SpaceX is the biggest of those “new entrant companies” that pose a challenge to ULA’s current position as the major provider of launch services for large spacecraft to the US government. Several members of the Alabama Congressional delegation have been critical, directly or indirectly, of SpaceX. Last month, Rep. Brooks co-signed a letter with two Colorado House members to NASA admininstrator Charles Bolden, asking for details about what they termed an “epidemic of anomalies” with SpaceX missions. Rep. Rogers had made a similar request of NASA and Air Force officials earlier this year. Sen. Shelby took credit for introducing a provision in report language accompanying a Senate appropriations bill that would require certified cost data for commercial crew companies, like SpaceX, which advocates of that program claim would drive up the cost of the program.

A spokesperson representing SpaceX said in an email Monday that the company would not comment on the letter from the Alabama suppliers. The company, as well as ULA, have calmed their rhetorical battles in recent weeks after a judge called on SpaceX and the Air Force to resolve their legal battle over the EELV block buy contract through mediation, and not to comment about that ongoing process in the media.

22 comments to Alabama businesses support launch competition

  • Coastal Ron

    This has to drive politicians in Alabama nuts – no matter which constituents they support they will get lambasted for not supporting “the right one”.

    Which is the “right one”? There seem to be three factions at play here:

    1. NASA related jobs, including the largest NASA center, MSFC
    2. United Launch Alliance (ULA), which does all their manufacturing in Alabama
    3. Aerospace suppliers that serve many customers inside and outside of Alabama

    We know that government facilities are hard to close, since once they are created the local politicians feel they have an entitlement to them always being there. No doubt that applies to MSFC too, and unless NASA gets enough funding for certain types of programs it’s headcount would surely fall.

    As a business ULA will receive support for the jobs it brings, but according to the supplier letter not all businesses see ULA as the only source for jobs.

    The answer is competition, which is what the suppliers are lobbying for. With a level playing field jobs will flow where they are needed, and such shifts are a normal part of our economy. I hope the Alabama politicians listen to their constituents.

  • My guess is the Alabama business people realize that the days are over where they can suckle on the government teat forever and ever. Congress will not give NASA bottomless barrels of cash to dispense to monopoly contractors, at least for much longer.

    Perhaps the Space Coast losing SpaceX to Texas was a wakeup call for Huntsville too. Monopolies are so last century. Diversify or die.

  • John Kavanagh

    These choices aren’t mutually exclusive, particularly if NASA has the freedom to evolve MSFC’s role beyond competing with the private sector to provide heavy launch services. If MSFC was focused on deep space technologies, instead of building SLS, they could leverage multiple commercial launch providers.

  • Shelby’s a master flipper, once he sees who’s holding the spatula he’ll flop on.

  • This story is a good example of the media leading a political counter-attack.

  • Dick Eagleson

    This is not a letter so much as a gently worded petition for redress of grievances directed at an Alabama political establishment that has, thus far, been obdurately stuck on stupid. The gentle wording should not be read literally, but instead be seen as an example of traditional Southern politesse with a subtextual edge well understood by both senders and recipients along the lines of, “Well, bless your heart!”

    I think these sub-contractors plainly see what Shelby, et al, have refused to admit thus far, namely that any prime contractor whose future prospects depend critically upon Russian forbearance – as ULA’s currently do – is a customer that, no matter how rich a current source of sales, may whiff into vapor at any moment. Having no wish to be vaporized too, at the whim of Vladimir Putin, this “letter” is an appeal of several kinds.

    First, and indirectly, to ULA to face its vulnerabilities forthrightly and do something about them. The undersigned corporate chiefs doubtless do far more business with ULA than with anyone else, but they can see the danger in recently soured relations with Russia and don’t wish to be buried in the rubble of any Russian-initiated ULA collapse.

    One also infers that all have been strenuously exerting themselves recently in efforts to find other significant takers for their goods and services. No doubt they have been told something along the lines of, “I see you’re located in Alabama. You seem to make a good product and I like the price too, but I can do about as well from your competitors in other states whose Congressional delegations aren’t trying to put me out of business. So, for now, I’m going to have to say ‘No.’ If you can talk some sense into your state’s representatives, please feel free to come back and we’ll be happy to have another talk.”

    I don’t think it is only SpaceX from whom the good subcontractors of Alabama have been receiving such expressed regrets. Shelby & Co. have what can only be called a complex relationship with Orbital-ATK these days. Support for SLS theoretically advantages ATK’s solids business, but the all-fronts assault on commercial crew and cargo is a direct threat to what is already a large piece of Orbital’s business that they would like to see grow still larger. The old rules have ceased to cleanly apply.

    These suppliers plainly see the prospects for large growth in the satellite and even crew launch businesses by companies with large and growing revenues and supplier budgets and no Russian-related vulnerabilities. They, naturally enough, want in for a piece of this. They are being hobbled in their efforts by the bomb-throwers in the Capitol who allege to be defending their interests but are simply burning all the bridges out of Alabama instead.

    So here’s to “The Revolt of the Subs” as I think we may accurately style it. Perhaps they will be able to stem the tide of arrant stupidity flowing out of Alabama these days where no one else has been able to make much of a dent. I wish them nothing but the best in their efforts to restore rationality to a big piece of America’s space effort.

    • Paul Scutts

      Beautifully expressed, Dick. I completely agree.

    • E.P. Grondine

      Dick, in my opinion, you are barking up the wrong tree.

      Why did Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, et al tie their space sector economies to ATK’s Ares1?

      Perhaps the answer lies in Utah.

      • Dick Eagleson

        It probably did reside at least partly in Utah. But Ares/Constellation wasn’t all or maybe even most of the story. ULA was riding high at that time too and was the only USAF launch outfit in town. The Deep South’s space pilotfish were following the big shark, ULA, around.

        But time moves on and things change. SpaceX was a tiny garage shop when the Constellation program got underway. SpaceX had yet to launch its first Falcon 9 at the time Ares 1-X flew. Now SpaceX has launched 11 Falcon 9’s with no failures. ATK is a division of Orbital Sciences, a company whose future ambitions are much more SpaceX-like than old-style-ATK-like. Constellation is dead and SLS is on life-support. ULA is looking iffier and iffier due to Russian engine supply issues and SpaceX’s at least thus far successful legal effort to crack open ULA’s block buy Hail Mary play.

        Pilotfish whose shark suddenly dies and sinks to the bottom are not happy pilotfish. These Alabama Good ‘Ole Boys of aerospace are looking to hedge their bets and are, doubtless, not finding a lot of love for their combative Congressional delegation as they knock on various doors outside the Old Confederacy. Thus the “cool it” letter. It will be interesting to see who has more pull with Congress now, a collection of worried subcontractors or a wounded, but still arrogant prime. Life has just gotten very complicated for Alabama’s Congresscritters. Couldn’t happen to nicer guys.

        • Michael Kent

          “ULA was riding high at that time too and was the only USAF launch outfit in town. The Deep South’s space pilotfish were following the big shark, ULA, around.”

          Don’t blame the Ares fiasco on ULA. ULA is the primary victim of that program. Had Ares not existed, NASA would have a BLEO exploration program based around existing EELVs built by ULA. ULA, Boeing, and NASA all came up with architectures to do that at a much lower cost than Constellation.

          How MSFC and ATK were able to overpower the combined political might of Boeing and Lockheed Martin is probably the biggest space politics mystery of the century (so far).

          • Dick Eagleson

            I wasn’t blaming ULA for Constellation, merely pointing out that the subcontractors’ recently expressed concerns are ULA-oriented. E.P.’s observation was at least a bit off topic, but not entirely. A lot of these guys who signed the letter may have SLS-related business too and, if so, probably had Constellation-related business before that.

            Sen. Shelby is the Field Marshal of the Alabama Legacy Aerospace Army. He fights to defend both ULA and MSFC, but it’s pretty obvious who was the favored child after Constellation – and now SLS – were ginned up in succession. Especially since MSFC was already full grown while ULA was still a bun in the oven.

            That’s the answer to your mystery – Sen. Shelby. There were people in the mid-2000’s at what was about to become ULA and NASA who wanted an EELV-based approach, but there were more NASA people who wanted a big new monster rocket. Most of them worked at MSFC.

            ULA is – true – the child of Boeing and LockMart, but ULA was about to be set up with its cushy USAF monopoly as Constellation was being plotted and with the EELV people at both Boeing and LockMart about to be hived off, there would have been a lot more people remaining at both Boeing and LockMart with rice bowls standing to be filled by, first, Constellation and then by SLS when Constellation cratered.

            The correlation of political forces was plainly in the direction of the monster rocket crowd getting its way. ULA, being a nascent entity still in the process of gestation at the time, would have had no institutional clout capable of standing against the monster rocket tide that was running. And they had every reason to take the not inconsiderable goodies about to come their way and not make any waves. ATK gathering the Utah Congressional delegation to the monster rocket side was just gravy.

            • E.P. Grondine

              Hi Dick –

              Mick has it, in my opinion. The whole thing took far more than one senator from Alabama.

              It is also my opinion that ULA was formed as a result of the penalties imposed in the price information case, so that DoD launch needs were covered.

              I can tell you first hand that the old ATK was excellent at spin. I am hoping that the new Orbital/ATK will be excellent at engineering.

              I still do not know if SpaceX’s VTOL will work, and I’d like to see Plan B flyback from ULA. If Musk wants to set up his own small plan B team, that would probably be wise, given international technology developments.

              • Dick Eagleson

                It wasn’t just one Senator from Alabama, though that probably would have sufficed. It was also a Senator from Utah, Orrin Hatch. Keep in mind, both of these guys were part of the majority caucus at the time Constellation was being brewed up and ULA was coming together. And they were of the same party as the Presidential administration of that time. In the absence of any significant pushback from colleagues, one or two Senators can accomplish quite a lot in terms of pork and patronage. That is, of course, one of the chronic problems with our extant system of government. Even as members of the minority caucus these guys have a lot of influence.

  • Fred Willett

    It was easy to ignore SpaceX when they were only a struggling little launch company, but suddenly they have grown up and launch industry subcontractors are realizing that SpaceX is no longer a small company. It is now a major player in the industry.
    SpaceX currently has 25%+ of the global launch market and is setting out to capture 50%.
    As well they seem to have upped their launch rate. Their last 2 launches were only 22 days apart and they seem to be on track to top 7 launches this year and considerably more next year as another launch site (pad 39A) comes on line.
    SpaceX does most things in house, but there are still a lot of things they subcontract. From Moog payload adaptors to FTS systems.
    As a sub contractor you are not going to be happy with politicians who set out to sabotage such a lucrative customer.
    You might be tempted to write a letter to said politicians to remind them there are other businesses in their districts that deserve their support besides ULA.

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