Opinion: ULA Forced to Coexist with Commercial Space Industry

Michael Weinhoffer/Staff Reporter

On Sept. 12, a scathing opinion-piece on SpaceX and the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, written by former presidential candidate and congressman Ron Paul, was published by Fox News.

At the time of publication, the NDAA was being considered in the Senate, after passing the House of Representatives, and Ron Paul desperately urged his former colleagues to vote against the bill. Unfortunately for Paul, the bill passed on Sept. 19 with a vote of 89-8, with three senators failing to vote. Despite the bill’s passage, it is still a good idea to discuss Ron Paul’s argument and if his frustration with SpaceX is well reasoned.

Ron Paul cites section 1615 of the NDAA as the source of his argument against SpaceX. Section 1615 essentially prohibits the United Launch Alliance from receiving federal funding from the Department of Defense to further upgrade the RD-180 rocket engine used by the Atlas V launch vehicle. The Atlas V rocket is maintained by ULA, which is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. ULA launches the Atlas V rocket and a few other vehicles for the Department of Defense and NASA. The RD-180 engine used by the Atlas V is Russian-made, and amid an increase in tensions between Russia and the U.S., it was decided a few years ago that a new American rocket engine should be used instead.

ULA now plans to use Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine on the Atlas V replacement rocket, the Vulcan, which will be launched no earlier than in 2019. The NDAA only supports funding for new domestic rocket engines and ends funding for the RD-180, which, although very reliable, goes against the revived “American made” policy implemented by the Trump administration. The Atlas V will remain in service for a few more years with the RD-180, but will eventually be phased out in the early 2020s in favor of the Vulcan vehicle.

So where does SpaceX fit into all of this? Paul, a strong supporter of ULA, argued that SpaceX could take national security missions planned for launch on the Atlas V for themselves, and become a launching monopoly. The fact that RD-180 engines are now prohibited from use for much longer is a major blow to ULA and a big boost to Blue Origin and SpaceX. Blue Origin could now increase the rate of development of the BE-4 engine so that the Vulcan can get onto the stage as soon as possible. In the meantime, SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rocket could steal scheduled military launches from the Atlas V. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has already stolen a National Reconnaissance Office satellite launch and the Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane, which were have usually been launched by ULA.

There is a fatal flaw in Paul’s argument, however. He does not want the military to be forced to use commercial rocket engines and does not want them to have to compete for launches against the private space industry. But frankly, it is time for some launch competition in the U.S. The first Atlas V launch for ULA was in 2007, and SpaceX did not launch a military satellite until May of this year. This means that for ten years, ULA was the sole provider of military space launches. The merger between Lockheed and Boeing was viewed by many, including SpaceX, as the formation of a launch monopoly. ULA launched very significant missions for NASA and the Department of Defense, but they had no competition whatsoever for a decade. And now, when competition is at ULA’s doorstep, their supporters lash out. The provisions discussed in section 1615 came as a shock to many in the commercial space industry, but I believe that they are necessary and appropriate.

Just like the majority of the private space sector wants to see American astronauts launched on American soil with American rockets (instead of old Russian ones), they similarly want to see American rocket engines being used on launch vehicles. It simply does not make sense to use foreign rocket engines when there are several worthy rocket engine providers in the U.S., such as Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Aerojet Rocketdyne. Ron Paul needs to realize that the growing commercial space industry will pull the military along with it and that the resulting competition and change will foster a rewarding economic environment.