According to President Trump, the next frontier should include a return to the Moon with a subsequent trip to Mars. To fulfill this goal, the President’s budget includes $19.9 billion for NASA in the 2019 fiscal year, followed by annual allocations of $19.6 billion until 2023.
The meeting occurs after the recent successful inaugural launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy rocket. This significant achievement occurred after a launchpad explosion last year, almost five years of delays and the postponement of another Falcon 9 rocket launch set for last weekend.
While SpaceX is enjoying plenty of positive press after the recent successful launch, it should be noted that the company is currently dealing with a backlog of 70 missions valuing $10 billion. One of their exciting upcoming missions will involve rocketing two tourists into space beyond the moon on a 400,000-mile trip. This type of travel will eventually account for a significant part (10-20%) of the annual revenue of SpaceX.
Undoubtedly SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is a master at making headlines for his company. Nevertheless, there is plenty of healthy competition in this growing field, so our federal government must not become too dependent on one company and overlook other space industry entrepreneurs. Thus, it is a concern that SpaceX has accumulated over $5.5 billion in upcoming contracts from NASA and the Air Force, almost half of its overall total of $12 billion.
Awarding contracts without competitive bidding is fiscally irresponsible and potentially hazardous. Every contract must be awarded strictly on the merits, benefitting those contractors offering the highest quality results and the best value for the American taxpayers.
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When the Space Council was relaunched last year, members emphasized their focus would be on efficiently spending tax dollars on achievable projects offered by space industry leaders with a reliable track record. Certainly, there must be robust competition for every government contract. While SpaceX has achieved plenty of success in its brief history, there have also been notable failures.
A launch explosion in September of 2016 obliterated a $200 million Facebook satellite. Other failures included the destruction of a $110 million NASA payload and defaulting on a $60 million U.S. government contract. The most spectacular failure occurred in January when the billion-dollar “Zuma” spy satellite did not reach orbit. Its ultimate destination remains a classified national security secret.
All of these incidents only increased concerns about the durability of the SpaceX launch vehicles. In contrast, their only competitor, United Launch, has a perfect record after 12 years and 124 launches. These differences have not escaped the attention of the Defense Department’s Inspector General, who reported that Space X suffered from more “deviations from quality standards” than United Launch.
The concerns about the SpaceX launch vehicle need to be addressed and any outstanding problems need to be resolved before the Falcon 9 starts test flights later this year to shuttle astronauts to the International Space Station. It is also essential the House Science, Space and Technology Committee address these issues in upcoming hearings.
Going forward, government watchdogs must insist that no contracts be awarded to SpaceX or any contractor to conduct testing and trial and error experiments. This work is very important, but it must be financed by the company, not the American taxpayers. In addition, any attempt to limit contracts to strictly SpaceX and forgo competition must be thwarted for it not only wastes tax dollars, it also has a negative impact on national security.
Fortunately, the National Space Council is led by Vice President Pence, who is a long-time admirer of the space industry. He said that he “caught space fever” as a child and has “precious memories” of the incredible achievements of America’s space pioneers. Not only is Pence a fan of space travel, but he is also a strong conservative who safeguards American tax dollars and supports competitive bidding.
One area that will delight Pence and that positively distinguishes SpaceX is cost cutting. Musk has insisted that his company be efficient, while still achieving remarkable scientific breakthroughs. For example, a typical Falcon 9 launch costs only $60 million, $50 million less than the cheapest Atlas 5 rocket offered by United Launch.
In total, the achievements of SpaceX have been “outstanding,” according to Scott Pace, Executive Secretary of the National Security Council. Nonetheless, in a CQ Press interview, he also criticized the company for irritating mission delays. “Elon Musk sat in my office in 2002 and told me he'd have 10 launches a year by 2006. I'm still looking at my watch," Pace said.
The National Space Council has a tremendous opportunity to revitalize the space industry. It is encouraging that it is receiving input from a wide variety of manufacturers in the industry. As it continues its work, the Space Council must emphasize the value of competition and the benefit of involving more than just one manufacturer in government contracts. This type of process truly puts America First, in national security, in space and in safeguarding the precious financial resources of our country’s taxpayers.