Friday, March 7, 2014

King of the Hill

Click the arrow to watch the hearing on YouTube.

In 2005, SpaceX filed suit to stop the government from granting Boeing and Lockheed Martin a legal monopoly. The two companies were about to form United Launch Alliance, which would be granted all government launch business for non-human flights, both military and civilian.

Four months later, the lawsuit was dismissed. According to the report, the court concluded that SpaceX “is not yet ready to compete with the Defendants in the EELV market. Because it lacks such readiness, its speculative claims regarding future harm are not ripe.”

Eight years after that dismissal, SpaceX founder Elon Musk sat next to ULA CEO Michael Gass, on an equal footing for the first time in a Congressional hearing, held by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

Other witnesses were at the table. Cristina Chaplain represented the Government Accountability Office. Scott Pace from the Space Policy Institute represented, frankly, the space-industrial complex establishment. Mr. Pace appeared last week before the House space subcommittee, a former NASA executive on the Constellation program who went on to develop space policy for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign.

But the stars were Musk and Gass. David and Goliath. Ali and Frazier. Iron Man and Obadiah Stane.

Chairing the hearing was Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). Titled “National Security Space Launch Programs,” the hearing posited that it may be time to end ULA's monopoly and allow SpaceX to bid for national security launches.

Mr. Gass argued that while competition in theory might be admirable, the early 2000s had proven there wasn't enough demand in the launch industry to sustain two companies. For national security, it was important to grant ULA a monopoly and a guaranteed income so the industry could stand ready in time of war.

Mr. Musk pointed out that ULA's Atlas V uses the RD-180 engines built in Russia, exposing the U.S. launch market to the risk that engines wouldn't be available if the Russians cut off access.

Ms. Chaplain was at the table to discuss a report released March 5 by the GAO titled, Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle: Introducing Competition into National Security Space Launch Acquisitions. The report looked at how the Defense Department might reduce costs by using fixed-price contracts — in other words, how you and I shop for a product.

You can watch the video and judge for yourself who won the day.

For me, Mr. Musk won for no other reason than SpaceX is now the other 800-pound space gorilla on Capitol Hill.

No one can credibly argue that SpaceX “lacks readiness” to fly government payloads.

The next one is scheduled to launch March 16 from the Cape's Pad 40. The SpaceX Dragon capsule will deliver NASA cargo to the International Space Station. The SpaceX Falcon 9 will be the launch vehicle.

Musk pointed out that if SpaceX is good enough for NASA, it should be good enough for the Defense Department.

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