WASHINGTON: There is a growing threat to the U.S. space program moving along on schedule as a result of lawsuits, growing pressure by an army of lobbyists, and increasing partisan political involvement. On August 12, Blue Origin, the company launched by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, filed an official protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Bezo’s is challenging the U.S. Air Force’s method for selecting rocket launch providers for Phase 2 of their National Security Space Launch Program. This follows another competing company, SpaceX, which in May filed suit against the Air Force for failing to award it a launch contract in the initial phase of the program.
This trend of filing lawsuits when contracts are not awarded is viewed in the Pentagon as disruptive and has the potential to delay progress in the space program.
ROLL CALL, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, reports that Congress has been flooded with lobbyists promoting changes in the Air Force’s procurement process. It reports that,
“Lawmakers have been mostly of the Air Force’s approach to the program and unpersuaded by Blue Origin’s arguments.” –Blue Origin files protest in controversial rocket competition
One exception is Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who represents Seattle, where Blue Origin is headquartered.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which would make changes in the procurement process. Rep. Smith would make the act more favorable to companies such as Blue Origin. In the U.S. Senate, there is widespread support for the Air Force’s current procurement system. Among its strongest supporters is Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The NSSL program is designed by the Air Force to establish America’s spacefaring independence by ending its dependence on Russian rockets, specifically the RD-180. The Air Force has mandated that the program must remain on schedule and that failure to do so could harm America’s National Security interests.
The changes to the procurement process urged by some in Congress would, according to the Department of Defense, be detrimental to America’s interests in space. The proposed changes would mandate that the Air Force reopen competition for launch contracts, which would make it increasingly difficult for the Air Force to plan a proper launch schedule.
The White House has expressed its opposition to the NSSL changes and has threatened a presidential veto.
It agrees with the Pentagon’s plan to have only two producers in the next round of contracts, inspiring Blue Origin’s protest. This is an indication the company fears it won’t be among the winners in part because the Air Force is allowing bidders to offer a backup rocket.
Blue Origin’s rocket, known as New Glenn, is not expected to fly until 2021.
Air Force and Defense Department leaders argue that the strategy for the Stage 2 competition has been carefully thought out. That it has been planned over the past four years and that two providers are the right number. In the Air Force’s view, increasing the number of providers increases costs for all missions because each provider would get fewer launch contracts.
Air Force Col. Robert Bongiovi, head of the Air Force Space and Missile System Center Launch Enterprise, says that the Air Force favors competition,
“But you can overdo that. We absolutely agree we need to sustain competition. The way to do that is with the investment line focused on Phase 3.”
At the present time, he indicated, there is only enough commercial work for two companies.
Lt. Gen. John Thompson, head of the Space and Missile Systems Center, believes the current procurement system is fair and appropriate:
“All potential companies have sufficient maturity and we expect a full and open and robust competition. “
The Air Force is seeking two providers for about two dozen launches. There has been both legitimate competition and heavy lobbying and political pressure. The four companies, United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman have engaged in legitimate competition. But when those who lost a contract bid resort to lawsuits, lobbying, and political pressure, they endanger the future of our space program.
In the case of Blue Origin, there are questions about when it’s rocket will start flying. It is not clear whether it will be ready at the beginning of the 2022 contracting period. The new Launch Services Agreement Program seeks a new generation of rockets to meet the needs of the U.S. space program.It seeks to have at least two U.S.-based companies that could meet all nine rocket requirements.
The Air Force wants to see the space program progress on schedule. This is something that is suffering from the growing politicization of the selection process. Maj. Will Russell, an Air Force spokesman, says that,
“We cannot comment in further details regarding specific evaluation determinations as they are source selection sensitive.”
Even Blue Origin’s hometown newspaper, The Seattle Times, reports that its New Glenn rocket “is not expected to fly until 2021. Earlier, Blue Origin lost a protest over NASA’s launch pad decision in December 2013.”
It is unfortunate that the U.S. space program is now embroiled in political controversy and legal action. The two outsize personalities who lead two of the companies involved—-Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin and Elon Musk of SpaceX—-may be fueling the growing controversy.
The only loser, if this continues, will be the U.S. space program. The integrity of its ability to move forward in a timely manner is now under threat, which means our national security is weakening as a result.
Lead Image: NASA considers advanced solar electric propulsion technologies essential to future missions into deep space. Credit: NASA/Analytical Mechanics Associates artist’s concept