SpaceX has been launching civilian payloads into orbit for some time. But the company has its eyes on a much more lucrative prize: putting military satellites into space for the Air Force. And thanks to a strange confluence of circumstances, its pursuit of that goal could give it an effective monopoly over those missions, according to a Republican lawmaker.
SpaceX's biggest rival in the space launch industry these days is a company known as United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between the aerospace goliaths Lockheed Martin and Boeing. ULA has been the dominant player in Pentagon space launches for years, putting up all kinds of sensitive GPS and communications equipment for the military that's used to direct troops and gather intelligence.
But ULA is in a tight spot. Its main workhorse for national security launches is the Atlas V, which uses a Russian-made engine. Late last year, Congress imposed a ban on the RD-180, saying they should be phased out by 2019. ULA may not be able to get some of the engines it already ordered because of the legislation, Tory Bruno, ULA’s chief executive, said in a statement. “Not only is that anti-competitive, it puts the Air Force national security mission requirements at risk, ” he said.
To replace the Russian engine, ULA has partnered with Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin, which is developing a new engine, and has a separate engine development project with Aerojet Rocketdyne. (Bezos also owns the Washington Post.)
The problem for ULA is that this new engine won't be certified for Air Force launches until 2022 at the earliest, Bruno told a House committee Tuesday. And ULA's other alternative for doing the launches, the Delta IV, is pretty pricey — about 30 percent more costly than the Atlas V, Bruno said. (ULA says it will eventually phase out the Delta IV.)
You could say this poses a risk for the U.S. military; ULA, the Air Force's longtime launch partner, won't have a way to put some Pentagon payloads into space between 2018 and 2022.
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