On June 22, Spaceflight Insider posted a devastating commentary concerning the latest failure of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation — SpaceX — to launch a satellite on schedule. The commentary, written by Jason Rhian, raised important questions about the reliability of SpaceX technology and the culture of a company that is seeking to force its way into the military launch business using lobbyists, lawyers and a public-relations campaign. SpaceX had issued a statement saying lack of company coverage for the abortive launch reflected the fact that its launches have become “routine.” That prompted Rhian to issue this broadside:
If SpaceX wants to understand the meaning of the word ‘routine’ — they should sit down with someone who actually launches on a routine basis because that word doesn’t describe them. The only thing SpaceX does routinely — is scrub.”
That’s scrub as in canceling launches. Rhian went on to point out that since 2010, SpaceX has only managed to loft its Falcon 9 rockets into orbit nine times, or an average of 1.8 times annually. Yet CEO Elon Musk has recently claimed that his company could easily execute 9-10 national security launches per year — in addition to a similar number of launches it is committed to doing for NASA and commercial space companies. That adds up to twice the number of launches that the company has accomplished over the last five years. Not surprisingly, Rhian describes the company’s claims as “divorced from reality.”
Despite the vast gulf between SpaceX hype and actual performance, some legislators on Capitol Hill feel the upstart company is being discriminated against by the Air Force so that it can keep launching all its military satellites on rockets made by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The two companies operate a joint venture called United Launch Alliance (ULA) that at present is the only supplier officially certified to launch large military satellites — some of which cost over a billion dollars to manufacture.
The Air Force is working hard to get SpaceX certified, but warfighters may come to regret that move if the company’s performance to date is any indication. ULA has had 70 successful launches in a row since its inception, and has met schedule expectations 87% of the time during the Obama years. The corresponding figure for SpaceX is 29%, and a third of the company’s launches to date have failed. That’s not counting the numerous anomalies surrounding the SpaceX rockets that actually got payloads into orbit, such as engines that failed to re-ignite and thrusters that didn’t ignite at all. Let’s not even talk about the fact that Falcon 9 relies on old-fashion propulsion technology inferior to what ULA (and Russia, and China) is using today.
Recent frictions with Russia make a strong case for developing a new American rocket engine that uses the latest technology. There’s also a compelling case to be made for the Air Force’s dual-track policy of keeping its main launch provider viable while it searches for alternate sources who may be less expensive. But any attempt to change how launch services are provided to the Pentagon has to begin by assuring the reliability of the technology and management processes on which the military is depending. So far, SpaceX is not looking like a robust solution to the military’s needs.
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