Shelton Versus McCain on Import of SpaceX Failure

Shelton Versus McCain on Import of SpaceX Failure

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), and Gen. William Shelton (Ret.) view the June 28 SpaceX launch failure very differently.   In a McCain statement and a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Shelton, the two take opposite positions on what should be learned from the failure in terms of national security space launches and how long Russian RD-180 engines are needed by the U.S. military to have assured access to space.

The congressional push to end reliance on RD-180s began while Shelton was still on active duty and Commander of Air Force Space Command and he and McCain differed on these issues all along.  At the last congressional hearing on the topic during Shelton’s tenure, in July 2014, they were fully were on display.  Apparently nothing has changed.

Gen. William Shelton while on active duty.  He
is now retired from the Air Force.
(Photo credit:  U.S. Air Force /Duncan Wood)

Ending reliance on RD-180s, which are used for the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket to launch national security satellites, and allowing SpaceX to compete with ULA for those launches, have become inextricably entwined.  Sunday’s SpaceX launch failure adds fuel to the debate.

At the July 2014 hearing, Shelton agreed that it is time to build an American alternative to the RD-180, though he did not hide his admiration for the technical performance of the RD-180-powered Atlas V.  Atlas V has a 100 percent success rate so far.  He worried that it not be phased out before an American alternative is fully ready to replace it to ensure that ULA can be competitive with SpaceX later this decade.   McCain, however, insinuated that Shelton was favoring ULA and was against SpaceX.  He asserted that he did not like the Air Force’s “block buy” contract with ULA for 36 rocket engine cores signed in 2013 and reminded everyone of the improprieties he uncovered in an aerial tanker lease deal with Boeing when “people went to jail and people got fired.”  ULA is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).  Photo credit:  McCain Senate website.

Shelton’s successor as Air Force Space Command commander, Gen. John Hyten, has testified a number of times since then with essentially the same message — yes, a new American-made engine should replace the RD-180, but make sure the new engine (and launch vehicle, if needed) is fully functional before ending use of the RD-180s.  Hyten and higher level DOD officials, including Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, are currently trying to get Congress to relax a requirement in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that RD-180 use end by 2019.

Meanwhile, SpaceX was certified at the end of May to compete with ULA for national security launches.  At the time, it had 18 consecutive Falcon 9 launch successes.   The question is how important Sunday’s Falcon 9 failure is to SpaceX’s ability to compete and, on a larger scale, what it might mean later this decade when Atlas V’s no longer are in service because of the RD-180 ban if an alternative is not ready.  Critics argue SpaceX will become a monopoly supplier with a less reliable rocket.  ULA has been the monopoly provider of national security launches since it was formed in 2006.  It launches Atlas V and Delta IV, but Delta IV is very expensive — ULA puts the price at $400 million per launch — so is not cost competitive with SpaceX, the argument goes.  Thus SpaceX would win all the competitions in that time frame and become a monopoly itself..

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed on June 29, the day after the SpaceX failure, Shelton, now retired, made his points again.  Agreeing that it is “smart policy” to build a U.S. alternative to the RD-180, he argued that “an abrupt ban is not smart.”   The House-passed FY2016 NDAA (H.R. 1735) provides flexibility as to how long the RD-180 may be used, as requested by the Air Force.  Shelton wants Congress to adopt that position during the conference between the House and Senate on the final version of the FY2016 NDAA.  The Senate version, written by McCain and his SASC colleagues, insists on 2019 as required by current law.

In a statement (reproduced below), McCain called Sunday’s launch failure “a minor setback” that “will in no way impede the future success of SpaceX and its ability to support U.S. national security space missions.”   As for those who try to “leverage” the failure to argue for more RD-180s than the nine allowed in the Senate bill, this “mishap in no way diminishes the urgency of ridding ourselves” of RD-180s.  He often states that paying Russia for the engines funds Russian President Vladimir Putin and his “cronies.”   He vowed that “With Russian troops still occupying Ukraine and killing its citizens, I will continue to oppose” the House language.

The House and Senate began appointing conferees for the NDAA before Congress recessed for the July 4 holiday.  How long it will take for them to reach agreement on this and other issues is unknown.  President Obama has threatened to veto the bill for a variety of reasons.  His Statement of Administration Policy on the Senate bill (S. 1376) criticized several of the launch-related provisions including insistence on 2019 for ending use of RD-180s.

Sen. McCain’s statement is not published on his website yet.  The text was provided to by his press officer, Julie Tarallo, via email and reads as follows:

will be closely monitoring the outcome of the pending investigation
into this launch failure, which comes after seven successful Falcon 9
launches to the International Space Station.
Any time we have a launch failure is a bad day for the United States
space program. But our nation did not go to space because it was easy,
but because it was hard. Space is still hard, and challenges like these
serve as a reminder that space launch remains
a very high-risk endeavor requiring unwavering perseverance and utmost
dedication among the select few who strive to one day make it
commonplace, reliable, and affordable. I am confident that the that this
minor setback will in no way impede the future success
of SpaceX and its ability to support U.S. national security space
There will be those that will seek to leverage this incident to argue
for deepening America’s dependence on Russian rocket engines for
national security space launches. This mishap in no way diminishes the
urgency of ridding ourselves of the Russian RD-180
rocket engine. The Department of Defense will continue to have two
launch providers until at least 2018, if not later. If that competitive
environment were placed at risk in the coming years, I am confident the
Congress could revisit this issue in order to
mitigate any national security impacts.
With Russian troops still occupying Ukraine and killing its citizens, I
will continue to oppose language currently in the House defense
authorization bill, which guarantees that $300 million of taxpayer money
will go to Vladimir Putin, his cronies, and the
Russian military industrial base.

Editor’s Note:  The statement refers to seven successful Falcon 9 flights to the ISS, a count that must include the C2+ demonstration flight in 2012 plus the six operational cargo missions prior to Sunday’s attempt.

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