If you're in the space launch business, the U.S. military is a very juicy client. The Pentagon regularly needs to deliver satellites into orbit, and has the budget to pay handsomely for the service. But as it stands now, the contract for most launches is locked up by United Launch Alliance, or ULA, a joint venture between mega-contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin. ULA was the only entity certified to compete for a contract to supply 36 rockets it was selected for in December of last year.
Elon Musk's SpaceX doesn't like that status quo. In fact, it's so frustrated it sued the Air Force this spring, arguing it could provide rockets for launch at a better price and should be considered as an option. "We just think the law of the land is competition," Musk said about the suit at a press event in June. “There’s no legitimate reason why there shouldn’t be competition."
Even as the suit continues, SpaceX is in the certification process and says it expects it to be complete by the end of the year, but government officials say that timeline represents the most optimistic scenario. The certification process was implemented in 2011, and is a multi-step endeavor including the successful completion of prior launches and evaluations of the rocket's design, safety systems, manufacturing and engineering processes, as well as launch facilities.
But there's reason to believe things aren't going as smoothly as SpaceX might hope: The Air Force is currently examining several anomalies that occurred in the company's three civilian space flights, according to Bloomberg report earlier this week -- including "unacceptable fuel reserves" at some point during one launch and a fire on an engine structure during a December flight.
The launches were still certified as successful even with the anomalies, but the Air Force's focus on "mission assurance" means it places a lot of scrutiny on the engineering practices of suppliers. To understand why, a brief history lesson is in order -- one that will take us all the way back to the late 1990's, when the U.S. space industry suffered a string of major launch failures.
"Between '97 to '99 we had significant failures both on the military and on the commercial side," Air Force Space Commander William Shelton explained to a Senate Armed Services subcommittee last week during a hearing on maintaining U.S. access to space. That disastrous string included three failed military launches that lost payloads totaling over $3 billion and two civilian launch failures.
In response, President Clinton asked for an inquiry into the sources of the issue, which was carried out by former Air Force chief of staff General Larry Welch. The resulting broad area review reports blamed much of the problem on mishaps related to contractor work, saying "factory-introduced engineering and workmanship errors predominate."
The review recommended the government tighten its oversight of the U.S. launch industry, enhancing partnerships and establishing clear accountability for mission success going forward.
"We had adjusted our approach to mission assurance from what has traditionally been deep oversight into just insight," Shelton explained in the recent hearing. "We pretty much just gave it over to the contractors to provide their own mission assurance -- and we found out that just didn't work well for us." After adjusting course, the military has managed to significantly improve its trackrecord -- now claiming 72 straight successes.
SpaceX rockets have delivered payloads for the International Space station and completed other successful civilian launches. But while most launches require significant and financial resources, government officials argue that military launches require the utmost scrutiny because of the potential national security fall out of a failure.
Military satellites has "significantly different and generally more stringent launch vehicle requirements than” civilian payloads, according to the Air Force paper on its examination of anomalies in SpaceX civilian launches. "The loss of even one national security payload both in terms of financial loss and operational impact would make our mission assurance costs look like very cheap insurance," Shelton told the subcommittee last week.
However, there's also a sense of urgency to introduce additional avenues for launch into the military pipeline. The engine for ULA's Atlas 5 rocket, which is used in many military launches, is built in Russia -- and U.S.-Russian space relations have become increasingly strained as tensions mount in eastern Ukraine.
In May, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced the country would no longer supply engines for use by the U.S. military. A Pentagon spokesperson at the time told reporters that ULA had enough rockets for scheduled launches over the next two years, enough to cover the transition to the Delta rocket which uses a U.S. produced engine.
But the situation still concerns some members of Congress, who raised alarms about the potential of a worst case scenario were diplomatic relations with Russia were to entirely deteriorate at last week's subcommittee. "We simply cannot rely on the vicissitudes of a foreign supplier in a foreign nation for our national security, therefore we must do what it takes to reduce our reliance on foreign engines," Sen. Ted Cruz (R, Tex.) declared during the hearing.
Cruz encouraged the government to consider "expediting" introducing more competition into the military launch process. But the timeline for when SpaceX would be part of that process remains in flux -- much to the consternation of Musk.
“I don’t understand what’s taking so long,” he said in June. “The Falcon 9 obviously works. It’s not as though the Air Force is changing the design of the rocket. They’re really just learning about it. That’s what the certification process is."
But the failures of the late '90s likely weigh heavy on the minds of Pentagon officials charged with the certification process. While SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell earlier expressed hope that the certification process for the Falcon 9 would be completed by the end of the year, recent reports say Air Force officials believe a spring or summer 2015 timeline is more likely.
"Having additional certified competitors in the marketplace will help lower the costs to delivery payloads into space and, of course, drive innovation." Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said in last week's hearing. "We must also ensure those providers though are able to meet the technical requirements necessary to ensure mission assurance."