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General: Failures May Disrupt Competitive Rocket Launches

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify the general's concerns about launch failures on the industrial base.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- The general in charge of Air Force Space Command warned that failures may disrupt how the service buys rocket launches from competitive providers.

The Air Force is working to transition its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, program from a sole supplier to multiple providers capable of launching military and spy satellites. The shift raises fundamental questions about mission assurance and the industrial base, Gen. John Hyten said.

"God forbid, someday we will have an accident again," he said Tuesday during the Space Symposium conference here. "It's not going to be the next launch or the launch after that, but it will happen again. It's the nature of the business."

Hyten referenced the shuttle disasters in the 1980s and 2000, the Titan rocket accidents in the 1990s and, most recently, the explosion last fall of the Orbital ATK Antares rocket shortly after lifting off from a new launch pad outside Washington, D.C.

"All the tragedies in the space business, what happened after that?" he asked. "We stood down the rocket for a period of time -- one year, two years, two and a half years -- whatever it took to figure out the root cause of the problem and fix it so it wouldn't happen again."

Moving to an acquisition environment in which the Air Force can buy launch services from the incumbent, United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., as well as potential new entrants such as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, will require doing away with a billion-dollar-plus contract currently awarded to ULA to guarantee access to space, Hyten said.

"If something goes wrong, what do you have to do to return to fly in this kind of environment and who makes that decision?" he asked. "Because I'm not going to stand up and put a billion dollar satellite on top of a rocket I don't know is going to work. And if that's the case, then that company who now is on this very busy launch schedule is now down. How do they stay in business with the other competitor launching and launching and launching? That's a fundamental issue."

Hyten, who said he supports competitive launches and ending the military's reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 engine used on ULA's Atlas rocket, expanded on those comments Thursday during a press briefing with reporters.

"I'm actually not worried about the mission assurance side as much as I'm worried about the industry surviving," he said.

Hyten said he has discussed these questions with ULA Chief Executive Officer Tory Bruno, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, other industry officials, as well as his own staff, but hasn't yet come up with a solution.

"I don't know how to do that yet," he said. "That's the one element I don't know."

Hyten also said the ranges at Vandenburg Air Force Base, California, and at Cape Canaveral, Florida, aren't equipped to accommodate so many military and commercial launches, and he called on companies to work with the service to build an automated flight safety system. SpaceX on Tuesday launched a spacecraft from the Cape on its latest mission to resupply the International Space Station.

"The fact that the Cape is going to get as many as 40 launches this year is remarkable," he said. "They've about maxed out their capability on their range. We have to build an automated flight safety system and get that approved."

During a panel discussion earlier in the day, Bruno and Shotwell had different outlooks on the launch market. The EELV is budgeted at $70 billion through fiscal 2030. SpaceX had sued the Air Force for awarding a multi-year block buy contract to ULA for 36 booster cores -- the main component of a rocket, including the engine -- but dropped the complaint after the service pledged to open more launches to competition.

"There is absolutely room for competition, but the acquisition strategy has to be carefully thought through," Bruno said, noting that the number of national-security launches is expected to drop from 10 to 12 a year to about five a year. "If you don't handle that properly, you could end up killing this burgeoning new opportunity to have multiple companies in competition to provide that capability."

Shotwell said SpaceX's share of the commercial market alone could increase from 30 percent to more than 50 percent with the planned introduction of the Falcon Heavy rocket. She also cited as business opportunities future NASA contracts for launching both astronauts and supplies to the space station.

"I see a huge growth -- an up-tick -- in the potential marketplace," she said, "not a downturn."

 

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