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Top general says reliability trumps rocket costs

Posted: May 20, 2014

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- The head of U.S. Air Force Space Command pushed back Tuesday against accusations the service was excluding SpaceX from competing for lucrative military satellite launches, saying the Air Force was committing $60 million and scores of engineers to certify the commercial rocket company to put critical and costly national security payloads into orbit.

File photo of Gen. William Shelton. Credit: Space Foundation
"When you're spending $60 million and putting 100 people against the problem to get somebody certified, it's hard to say you're excluding them," said Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command. "They cannot compete -- will not compete -- until they are certified."

Shelton said SpaceX has completed enough launches to achieve certification, but the Air Force has so far only deemed one of the launches will count toward the three-launch requirement agreed to by the Defense Department and SpaceX last year.

The certification document signed by the Air Force and SpaceX calls for three successful launches of the upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket. The first flight launched Sept. 29 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., followed by two more launches from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in December and January.

"The next two launches, we're still working our way through. Behind that is a process analysis to make sure that your manufacturing processes are right, to make sure that your engineering processes are right, to make sure you've got an auditable financial system," Shelton said Tuesday. "All those kinds of things have to come together to certify a provider."

SpaceX has filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims seeking to overturn the Pentagon's sole-source award of 28 space launches to United Launch Alliance, a company jointly owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which operates the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rocket fleets.

The Atlas 5 and Delta 4 were developed in the 1990s under the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. SpaceX is now trying to break into the EELV market with the Falcon 9 rocket.

Founded by Internet and technology mogul Elon Musk, SpaceX claimed it could launch military satellites at a fraction of the cost of ULA, writing that the incumbent launch provider had monopolized the national security launch business in the United States. The suit filed April 30 calls for the launch award to ULA, which was signed last year, to be nullified and opened up to competition.

Air Force officials have said they were not notified of the lawsuit before it was filed with the court.

"Generally, the person you want to do business with, you don't sue them," Shelton said.

ULA has responded to SpaceX's lawsuit, saying the "block buy" of 28 rocket launches by the Air Force helped realize more than $4 billion in cost savings. ULA chief executive Michael Gass said Monday the average cost of a lower capability version of its Atlas 5 rocket -- with a performance roughly comparable to SpaceX's Falcon 9 booster -- was $164 million, significantly less than SpaceX claims.

Shelton said certification of the Falcon 9 rocket should be completed by December or January.

"It's very difficult to pick up the pace on that," Shelton said. "It just takes time. It takes money, and it takes people. I think SpaceX would have a hard time going faster than we're going right now."

Speaking to reporters April 28 in Washington, Musk described the certification reviews as a "paperwork exercise" and said SpaceX's complaint was specifically directed at the Air Force's procurement authorities.

"Since this is a large multi-year contract, why not wait a few months for the certification process to complete and then do a competition?" Musk asked.

Shelton told reporters Tuesday that there was a misconception that the Air Force was dithering on certifying the Falcon 9.

"That's what we find as irritating as anything," Shelton said. "It's like we're not leaning forward. We certainly are. We're putting a lot of treasure and a lot of people against certification to try to get done as quickly as we can ... and to allow them to compete as soon as possible."

File photo of a Falcon 9 rocket launch from Sept. 29, 2013. Credit: SpaceX
Air Force officials have said the block buy was essential to achieve cost savings promised by ULA, adding there was no guarantee when SpaceX's Falcon 9 would be certified.

Shelton said the Air Force expected it would need 50 rocket cores to meet its launch needs over the next four years. It committed to purchase 36 of the core from ULA under the 28-launch block buy.

Some of the rocket cores will fly on the Delta 4-Heavy rocket, which uses three first stage cores strapped together on a single launch to boost its performance to loft heavier satellites.

The Air Force set aside the other 14 cores officials expected to need through 2017 for a competition open to any provider certified to launch national security satellites.

"For a variety of reasons, including GPS satellites lasting longer, some budget pressures and some other things, we reduced that to probably seven, and maybe an eighth launch, that we would be able to award competitively," Shelton said.

"Beyond 2017, we believe there's going to be a fully open competition," Shelton said. "Getting SpaceX certified allows them to compete for these seven or eight remaining launches, and then sets them up to being ready to compete in a full and open competition beyond '17."

Even when the Falcon 9 is certified, SpaceX would still be unable to launch some of the military's heaviest satellites due to the launcher's performance limitations. ULA's Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets feature strap-on solid rocket boosters, and the Delta 4-Heavy can put more than 28 metric tons into low-altitude orbits, a capability not offered by SpaceX.

SpaceX is working on a Falcon Heavy rocket capable of putting up all of the military's satellites, but will not fly until 2015 and must then undergo its own certification.

Shelton was adamant the Air Force would not change its stringent requirements for reliability and mission assurance.

"If you look at the history of competition across the board, it can't help but bring prices down," Shelton said. "Our overriding objective here is to get national security payloads to space reliably. That has to be front and center of everything we do. By the same token, we know it's costing a lot -- access to space -- and we need to drive the price down."

The military's fleets of communications, navigation, and surveillance satellites are worth billions of dollars. Today's tight budgets put an even greater emphasis on launch reliability, Shelton said.

SpaceX's flights have so far delivered food, experiments and supplies to the International Space Station, plus several commercial satellites to orbit. Shelton said they don't compare to Air Force's most critical missions.

"If you look at what NASA was contracted with SpaceX to date, if you show me an interplanetary mission that's contracted with SpaceX, now we're talking," Shelton said. "But that's not what's contracted with SpaceX. It is basically commercial resupply to the space station. It is not putting those precious assets on top of that rocket and launching it yet."

NASA engineers the Kennedy Space Center are working through its own certification of the Falcon 9 rocket.

Darren Bedell, systems integration manager for NASA's Launch Services Program, said Tuesday that the space agency has determined all three of the initial Falcon 9 v1.1 missions will count toward the launcher's certification.

"We have deemed those launches to be successful, but we're now getting into the nitty-gritty to make sure we're confident in putting a NASA science mission on SpaceX," Bedell said.

NASA is currently certifying the Falcon 9 for medium-risk, or Category 2, NASA science payloads. Officials would not say how many more flights the Falcon 9's upgraded version are needed before SpaceX completes NASA's Category 2 certification, citing it as competition-sensitive.

Other NASA missions, such as flagship research satellites and most interplanetary probes, require an even lower risk launcher. The Falcon will need to complete more successful missions before officials allow it to launch those spacecraft.

A NASA policy document outlining SpaceX's certification requirements says the space agency requires at least three successful launches of a common rocket configuration, including two successes in a row.

According to Bedell, NASA is now in an intensive data and process verification with SpaceX and has just completed a design certification review. The next step is flight hardware and software qualification.

NASA aims to complete the certification of the Falcon 9 for medium-risk science missions at least six months before the March 2015 launch of Jason 3, a U.S.-French oceanographic research satellite NASA contracted to launch with SpaceX.

NASA, the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office developed the strategic tenets behind the process to certify new entrants, of which SpaceX is the first to test the waters. But the organizations are handling the details differently.

Unlike NASA, which signed a deal for SpaceX to launch the Jason 3 satellite before it was certified, Shelton said the Air Force might allow SpaceX to submit contract bids pending certification, but would receive no awards until the process is finished.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.