WASHINGTON: While few doubted it would happen, the news that Elon Musk’s scrappy, pushy and — yes — disruptive launch company SpaceX won certification from Space and Missile Systems Center carries enormous import for the international launch industry, for the Pentagon, the Air Force and the Intelligence Community.
It’s not that Musk’s SpaceX is going to win deals tomorrow from the current national security launch monopoly, the United Launch Alliance. It’s that Musk has proven to many of the world’s most demanding acquisition experts and systems engineers that a commercial company can do rocket science to the same standards as ULA’s Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, reacted swiftly to the news.
“The certification of SpaceX as a provider for defense space launch contracts is a win for competition. Over the last 15 years, as sole-source contracts were awarded, the cost of EELV was quickly becoming unjustifiably high, ” he said in a statement this evening. “I am hopeful that this and other new competition will help to bring down launch costs and end our reliance on Russian rocket engines that subsidizes Vladimir Putin and his cronies.”
Today, that is a very high standard. ULA has notched up 90-some launches without one blowing up or failing to place its payload into orbit. Not all of those were national security launches for the Air Force or National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), but the tally is close to three-quarters of the total.
Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, then Air Force military deputy for acquisition, told me before Christmas there was little doubt that SpaceX would get certified. As the former commander of SMC and Deputy Director of the NRO, Pawlikowski is one of the most experienced and respected folks in America’s space enterprise, so her words meant much. But no one in the Air Force wanted to take the chance of rushing the process. So they didn’t. And the certification process took about six months longer than predicted, much to Musk’s very vocal chagrin. But it looks pretty clear in retrospect that Musk — with his paucity of experience with the defense and intelligence communities — just didn’t understand that they took this really seriously and didn’t care if he wanted it to happen faster.
What are the stakes? National security launches can take billion-dollar payloads that perform crucial military and intelligence work into space. Lose one to an exploding rocket and you not only have lost more than $1.25 billion — including the cost of launch — but you’ve also lost the capability, the time, the money and then you must fork over even more money to replace what was lost.
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