Monday, May 5, 2014

For The Block

A Lockheed Martin Atlas V launches on April 10, 2014 with a National Reconnaissance Office payload. The Atlas V uses RD-180 engines made in Russia. Image source: United Launch Alliance.

During the salvos traded last week between the American and Russian space programs, on April 30 members of the House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Strategic Forces introduced legislation to provide federal funding for a domestic replacement for the Russian RD-180 engines used on Lockheed Martin Atlas V rockets.

As reported by Spaceflight Now, the amendment to H.R. 4435, the Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Bill, “calls for the U.S. military to spend up to $220 million next year to kick off full-scale development of the engine, which could be ready for flights no later than 2019.”

The bill states the Defense Department “should develop a next-generation liquid rocket engine that is made in the United States, meets the requirements of the national security space community, is developed by not later than 2019, is developed using full and open competition, and is available for purchase by all space launch providers of the United States.”

Click here to download the amendment. The language is found in Section 1604.

But what so far hasn't been reported to my knowledge is the language in Section 1602, which appears to interfere with the lawsuit filed by SpaceX against the launch block buy awarded by the Defense Department to United Launch Alliance.

The section states, “It is the sense of Congress that ... the Air Force should continue the current block buy contract for such program ...”

“Should” isn't the same as “shall.” In the legal world, “shall” is a requirement but “should” is an encouragement, although a court could interpret “should” as “shall.”

Section 1602 also states that “the Air Force should continue to provide opportunities for competition to certified launch providers.”

In any case, why the subcommittee felt it necessary to express an opinion about the current block buy in dispute seems to be a mystery, but looking at its membership is a clue.

If you watch the video of the April 30 hearing, it lasts only 15 minutes. There is almost no discussion or debate about the amendment's provisions. Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) questions why no explanation is provided for the various provisions, and is ignored.

If you look at the subcommittee's majority membership, one of the members is Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), infamous for protecting the interests of United Launch Alliance on Capitol Hill. Brooks' 5th District includes Huntsville and Decatur. Huntsville is home to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, and Decatur has ULA's manufacturing, assembly and integration operations.

During his two terms in office, according to Brooks has received $23,250 from Lockheed Martin and $19,750 from Boeing, the two ULA partners.

Subcommittee chair Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) represents Alabama's 3rd District, which doesn't include Huntsville but it's fairly close by.

Over the last two election cycles, Rogers received $31,000 from Lockheed Martin and $22,750 from Boeing, according to

An April 30 press release from Rep. Brooks' office states, “I’m pleased to have worked with the committee to authorize this program at $220 million and include language that requires the DOD to coordinate with NASA to develop the rocket engine within the next five years.” No mention of the block buy provision.

Rep. Rogers' web site has no statement about the bill.

I'm tempted to question why the taxpayer should fund a replacement for the RD-180, but the inclusion of language calling for “full and open competition” implies something akin to NASA's commercial cargo and crew programs. The engine would be “available for purchase by all space launch providers of the United States.”

SpaceX is developing its Merlin and Raptor engines today without any taxpayer funding, but SpaceX did benefit in its formulative years from milestone payments once the company successfully proved its technology to NASA. Falcon 9 rockets with Merlin engines received NASA payments during development, but Raptor is completely funded by private capital.

Blue Origin has received NASA awards for developing its technologies, including its BE-3 liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen engine.

If these and other companies can fairly and equally compete for the engine contract, then I'm all for it.

The goal of having a replacement by 2019 seems a bit perplexing, given that ULA has stated it has a two-year supply of RD-180s. The 2019 date could reflect the subcommittee's reasoning that 2019 is when the ULA block buy might end, but ULA will run out of RD-180 engines long before then.

One also has to question how the replacement will be openly available to any domestic launcher, if it's privately owned. Will Congress require the manufacturer to limit its profit? Or will the government own the engine?

The amendment is by no means final. Even if it passes the House, it must reconcile with the Senate appropriations bill and it's entirely possible the conference committee may drop the language.

In the meantime, hopefully someone in the media will ask who introduced the language injecting Congress into the lawsuit and why.

UPDATE May 6, 2014 8:15 AM EDTMarcia Smith of reports that the chair of the House Armed Services Committee has posted his markup to H.R. 4435.

Click here to read the chairman's markup.

The markup strikes Section 1602 as written by the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, and replaces it with language that directs the Secretary of the Air Force to report to Congress on changes to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

So the intrusive block buy language is gone for now, but when the full committee meets tomorrow there could be another attempt to amend the bill with that language.

Committee chair Buck McKeon (R-CA) represents the 25th district in California, which includes high desert areas such as Lancaster and Palmdale.

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