There’s a very strange article over at Wired on the Dragon flight:
…the “commercialization” of space puts the U.S. military — one of the biggest space customers and a close partner with NASA — in an awkward position, according to Eric Sterner, a space expert with the Marshall Institute. “Changes in the nature of the launch industry will present policymakers with new dilemmas when it comes to ensuring military access to space.”
I’m guessing that he talked to no one for this article other than Eric Sterner, who has his own axe to grind, continuing (as far as I know) to be a Constellation fan. Which makes the piece all the more strange. More on that in a minute.
The problem stretches back to the mid-1990s, when the Air Force began pouring billions into a new rocket for carrying military satellites into orbit. The plan was to license the same rocket to commercial launch firms. But that private market never really materialized, and the Pentagon ended up assuming the full, $100-million-per-launch cost for the resulting Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, today the military’s standard rocket.
Almost all of this paragraph is wrong. It implies that there is a single EELV, which was developed by the Air Force, and then “licensed” to unspecified “commercial launch firms,” which never materialized, and that the Air Force is now operating it themselves. It also implies that it is the sole user, and that the Pentagon uses no other rockets.
Here’s the Planet Earth version of the history. The Air Force subsidized both McDonnell Douglas (which was absorbed by Boeing during this period) and Lockheed Martin to develop new, cheaper versions of the Delta and Atlas, respectively, but both companies put considerable amounts of their own money into them as well. There is little heritage of either vehicle to their ancestral namesakes other than the Centaur upper stage. Boeing and Lockmart operated their commercial vehicles, with the Air Force as primary customer. It is true that the market didn’t turn out to be as large as initially thought, and in the early aughts, Boeing actually wanted to get out of the business because it was operating at a loss. As a solution, to keep both lines available for resiliency, both companies ended up forming a new joint venture, similar to the one they formed to operate Shuttle and station, called United Launch Alliance (a commercial company), that has consolidated production and other functions to save money while still being able to offer both vehicles to the marketplace.
It goes on:
“Some would prefer NASA to meet its [Low-Earth Orbit] human spaceflight needs with modifications to the EELV, which theoretically would increase production runs and lower the [Air Force] marginal cost,” Sterner said. But after SpaceX’s success this week, NASA might decide to base its future vehicles on Falcon, leaving the cash-strapped Air Force to maintain the EELV all by itself.
Yes, some would indeed prefer that, and have been saying it for years, ever since ESAS, when NASA decided to spend billions building its own rockets, including the Ares I for crew transportation, and the Air Force went along with it. And it’s kind of amusing to read about the “cash-strapped Air Force,” considering the size of NASA’s budget in comparison. If NASA is smart, they’ll use both Falcon and EELVs for crew transport, so they have redundancy. What the Air Force really needs is a NASA to not develop a new Shuttle-derived vehicle, which it doesn’t need, and doesn’t have the budget for, but Congress is insisting that it build anyway, for no reason other than job preservation in Alabama, Utah, Mississippi and Florida. If NASA would commit to using existing vehicles, including both EELVs and Falcons, for exploration, there would be plenty of business for everyone, and it would also open the door to more DoD use of SpaceX hardware. Sterner sort of explains this:
The military might decided to regularly use Falcon alongside EELV. “In theory, that’d be a good thing, increasing competition and giving DoD greater access to space,” Sterner said. “In practice, it may not be as easy as all that. DoD poured a lot of money into the EELV and has much more control over it than SpaceX’s Falcon 9. It may be reluctant (for both legitimate and illegitimate reasons) to make greater use of Falcon since that would mean less use of EELV, which it’s still on the hook to maintain.”
The only sense in which the Air Force is “on the hook to maintain” EELVs (not EELV) is that if ULA (which, again, is not mentioned, allowing the reader to infer that it doesn’t exist) goes under, it would have no way to get a certain class of satellites into orbit. What that means, though, is that it has to provide ULA with enough business to ensure that this doesn’t happen, and if ULA can find other customers (e.g., Bigelow) the pressure on the Air Force to continue to keep the doors open diminishes or disappears. But if we had a Space Council, whose job was to ensure that we were actually accomplishing things in space, instead of keep factories going in selected states and congressional districts, an overhaul of policy would straighten this out (though over the screams of certain members of Congress), and there would be ample business for ULA and SpaceX, as well as the smaller players and upstarts.