Congress

Lawmakers spar big-time on behalf of rocket companies

Billions of dollars in business, and the future of national security, are at stake in fight over developing a new generation of rockets

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on February 6, 2018 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The rocket is the most powerful rocket in the world and is carrying a Tesla Roadster into orbit. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

More than two-dozen House members have thrown the latest punch in a bare-knuckled fight that pits competing U.S. rocket manufacturers and their allies on Capitol Hill against one another.

A bipartisan group of 28 House members urged Air Force Secretary Heather A. Wilson in an April 12 letter not to alter the service’s blueprint for developing a new generation of rockets to lift U.S. military and spy satellites into orbit. But plenty of other lawmakers have pushed for several changes.

The 28 members urged Wilson “to do everything in your power to keep the acquisition on schedule.”

[Senators remain skeptical of Space Force]

The signatories included senior members of the defense authorizing and appropriations panels, such as Republican Michael R. Turner and Democrat Marcy Kaptur, both of Ohio.

All of the letter’s authors are allies of United Launch Alliance, or ULA, a Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture company with headquarters in Colorado and its largest factory in Alabama.

ULA’s Atlas and Delta rockets have been the launch vehicles of choice for the Air Force since 2006. But the company’s dominance is under assault like never before.

The ULA supporters asked the Air Force to stay the course because congressional supporters of at least two of ULA’s rivals have been relentlessly pressuring the Air Force for months to delay and revise the acquisition plan to favor them.

Major issue for markups

Whether and how to alter the Air Force’s plan will be front and center as the Armed Services and Appropriations committees write their defense bills in the next couple of months.

Already, two powerful chairmen — Adam Smith, D-Wash., who leads the House Armed Services Committee; and Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and its Defense Subcommittee — have pressed Wilson, also in writing, on the matter.

They have leaned on her from different sides. Smith and others in his camp want a delay in the acquisition plus some other changes, while Shelby says full speed ahead.

The competing exchanges form one of the most heated lobbying campaigns in recent memory.

And it is no wonder, because billions of dollars in business and the future of national security launches are at stake.

“It will be the next decade-plus of national security space launch, and it’s a decade when we all of a sudden recognize that space is a war-fighting domain,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s chief executive officer, in a recent interview. “So it’s very, very critical.”

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Two winners only

The saga began nearly five years ago, when — in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea — Congress insisted ULA stop using Russian-made engines in its rockets.

That was about the same time that competing companies — led by California-based SpaceX, founded by Tesla carmaker Elon Musk — emerged as legitimate competitors to ULA for national security launches. SpaceX, where Musk is also CEO, has since joined ULA as a provider of launch services to the Air Force.

Washington has decreed no more Russian-made engines should propel U.S. rockets starting in 2022. To make that achievable, the Air Force decided to fund development of made-in-the-USA rockets.

Last fall, to put afterburners on the process, the Air Force divvied up $2.3 billion among three companies for work on rocket technologies. The companies were ULA, Northrop Grumman Corp. and Blue Origin LLC, a space company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Notably absent from the list of awardees was SpaceX.

The Air Force plans to solicit proposals this month for a follow-on phase: completion of development work and then construction of rockets ready to fly in 2021. The winner is expected to be announced a year from now. That is a very tight deadline for the newer companies to the competition.

The payoff for the two winners: 25 launches from fiscal 2022 through 2026, to be split 60-40 between them.

The Air Force has said anyone can compete for that deal, including SpaceX.

The rub is at least two companies — SpaceX and Blue Origin — have said this arrangement puts them at a competitive disadvantage.

SpaceX is said to be concerned that, because it was not awarded a development contract, it will unfairly have to spend its own money to make its bid competitive.

Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith told an industry forum last week that he would like more time before the field is winnowed to two firms to allow for “better insight” into the rocket systems.

Lawmakers take sides

The companies challenging the Air Force’s approach have found champions on the Hill. Smith wrote Wilson a letter on March 28 to complain about what he called “a rush to move ahead” with the program. He said the Air Force was limiting its options by choosing only three companies to get development funds and by planning to pick only two companies to provide launch services. He also said the development funds created an uneven playing field for those who received them.

Senate Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas made similar arguments in a Dec. 4 letter to Wilson.

So, too, did two senior appropriators from California — Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Ken Calvert, the ranking Republican on the Defense spending panel — in a Feb. 4 letter to Wilson.

Several of the lawmakers allied with SpaceX have called for U.S. Space Command to study the implications of the Air Force’s contracting approach. For example, that was the request to Wilson in a November letter from the then-chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee — Republican Mike D. Rogers of Alabama and Democrat Jim Cooper of Tennessee, respectively.

Any outcome will be consequential

On the other side of the ledger, meanwhile, are Northrop Grumman, ULA and their supporters, who believe any adjustments to the current plan will only help competitors.

Shelby, the Senate’s top appropriator, is an extremely influential lawmaker on their side. Shelby could use the fiscal 2020 defense spending bill to ensure the Air Force stays on track.

Now, with the April 12 letter from 28 House members, the pressure from that side of the battle has grown.

The Air Force, for its part, is standing its ground. The service’s brass insist they will not delay the competition and say they do not have enough launch business to support more than two contractors.

In a Jan. 2 letter to Rogers and Cooper, Wilson said the upcoming procurement decision is being structured “to obtain the best value to the government for assured access to space.”

Ultimately, how the program is structured may not be up to the Air Force. In fact, lawmakers are likely to weigh in, given the high level of interest their letters demonstrate.

Even if lawmakers merely order a study, it could delay the program. A revision to the acquisition plan — or even just legislative endorsement of the current approach — would also have consequences, both for the companies’ bottom lines and for the nation’s path to a U.S.-made launch capability.

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