- - Sunday, October 2, 2016


For the better part of the last three decades, commercial space launch was a specialty of the Russians and the Europeans while the United States lagged far behind. In 2011 and 2012, the United States was responsible for just two of 38 commercial launches while the next largest and most ambitious competitor in the market was identified as China — not the United States.

What a difference a few years have made, thanks to the revolutionary innovation within a surging domestic base for commercial space launch led by SpaceX — an all-American company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk. And ever since the company first came online in 2002, the commercial space market has been turned on its head as newer and more groundbreaking technology has been developed, tested and certified.

None of these advancements have been without risk, however. On September 1, a SpaceX launch vehicle, the Falcon 9, and a commercial satellite set to launch a few days later were destroyed in an explosion. The incident, while still under investigation, is more proof that endeavors in space remain a hazardous and risky business.

SpaceX’s direct competitor, United Launch Alliance (ULA), is now drawing attention to the mishap. As the only two certified launch providers, SpaceX and ULA are amid a healthy competition to secure a stronghold on launch services in both the commercial and national security spheres.

ULA, as it should, has its sights set on the next GPS III competition — scheduled for award early next year for a launch that won’t occur until 2018 or 2019. And ULA is citing the rocket mishap to undercut the appeal of SpaceX’s affordability given that cost is what drove ULA out of the last round of competition.

In addition to asking for a delay in the next round of bids for sensitive national security space launches, ULA is making a point that cost should be de-emphasized in the source selection criteria for contract awards. Doing so would be far more catastrophic to the future success of American space launch than the loss of a single Falcon 9 rocket and commercial satellite. The requests should be rejected.

Nobody was hurt in the SpaceX mishap, thankfully, making the Falcon 9 rocket that was being prepped to launch the most significant casualty of the day. It’s a rocket that has launched 27 times successfully, including nine times since last December, and it’s the only system of its kind capable of rocket booster reuse. On six separate occasions over the last two years, the Falcon 9 has successfully entered space, deployed a payload and returned to a landing pad or landing site at sea.

The concept and development of a reusable rocket booster is a critical component to ensuring America’s assured access to space. Beyond significantly lowering the costs of operating in space while increasing frequency, the Falcon 9 is at the forefront of a revitalized manufacturing base that is essential not only to American job growth and industrial strength, but also important to enhancing U.S. national security. Any interest to exclude cost from the equation, as ULA prefers, will be disruptive to both. More importantly, it would stifle both innovation and competition.

ULA is no less a leader in the effort to advance U.S. space access, but if there’s one shortcoming for ULA, it’s that it relies exclusively on a Russian-made rocket motor — inciting concern of overreliance on a Russian government that’s increasingly provocative and adversarial.

Both ULA and SpaceX have critical partnerships with the Department of Defense and like any competitors, they are challenging each other to make greater technological leaps. Furthermore, when considering the importance of inhibiting any type of delay in maintaining the nation’s assured access to space, it is imperative to continue funding for the development, testing and delivery of U.S.-designed and built rocket booster engines in order to put an end to America’s dependence on foreign engine suppliers.

For instance, U.S. rocket engine developer Aerojet Rocketdyne is capable of providing its affordable AR1 for use in current launch systems as early as 2019, eliminating the need for the Russian-made RD180 rocket booster.

It’s a good thing for the U.S. government and taxpayers, but there are bound to be temporary setbacks given the trickery of launching any vehicle into space, especially if that vehicle is intended to land itself back on earth and be available for reuse. A mishap by either SpaceX or ULA should never be grounds for politicization. More, it’s an opportunity to create efficiencies and stronger competition.

The Falcon 9 explosion is not an indictment on Space X or its technology, nor should it suggest in any way that we should shun the risk associated with developing the space access systems of the future. It’s also by no means an indictment on ULA for not necessarily pushing its short game the same way SpaceX has.

The Falcon 9 incident also puts in plain perspective the complications and dangers associated with accessing space. Taking risks will continue to be necessary, just as guaranteeing access to space now and into the future is in the national interest.

How well these priorities are balanced will determine just how much sooner and for how long the United States will be the unmatched global leader in a frontier with so much economic and security implication.

There will always be inherent risk with pioneering new technology. SpaceX and companies like it shouldn’t be punished for innovation and the challenges that come with it.

This is certainly one instance where risk — whether taken by SpaceX or ULA — will be very much worth the reward.

A former Marine, Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, is chairman of the House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee.

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