Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican, really, really doesn’t like competition in the space industry and, it appears, he’s quite comfortable giving Russian strongman Vladimir Putin control over U.S. access to space. Coffman and his office recently prepared and sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force criticizing the later two entities’ decision to hire SpaceX to deliver payloads into orbit. SpaceX has experienced two launch failures – most recently on September 1 – that destroyed multi-million dollar payloads.
Writing under the guise of a fiscal steward of taxpayer money, Coffman and nine of his colleagues suggested that SpaceX is a waste of taxpayer money and its most recent launch failure (which was truly spectacular) destroyed a $195 million Isreali-built AMOS-6 satellite. The satellite was for civilian communications.
But while Coffman is leading the charge for an outside investigation of SpaceX’s launch problem, he’s not doing so as a disinterested fiduciary. SpaceX is a competitor of United Launch Alliance, ULA, a joint 50-50 venture between industry giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Until 2014, ULA had a monopoly on launch contracts with the Air Force.
According to campaign finance records, Coffman has received $21,000 in campaign contributions from Boeing PAC, and a hefty $38,000 from Lockheed PAC. ULA has facilities in Colorado where Coffman is from.
While ULA touts its deep experience over SpaceX, what the firm does not talk much about is how its primary launch vehicle for government contracts uses rocket motors made in Russia by Energomash, a firm that is 86% owned by the Russian government. Coffman led the fight earlier this year to appropriate $540 million for ULA to buy 18 RD-180 motors from Energomash.
“Congress, NASA and the Department of Defense must be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars to achieve our military and civil space objectives. The investigative responses to both SpaceX failures raise serious concerns about the authority provided to commercial providers and the protection of national space assets,” the Congressional letter explains.
Coffman and his colleagues went on to question why the Air Force is still potentially using SpaceX for some contracts and ask the FAA if it would reconsider SpaceX’s license to operate launches. “Will the FAA reconsider issuing licenses to SpaceX in light of the pad explosion? If not, why?” they ask. Were the FAA to revoke SpaceX’s license without waiting for the full result of the investigation into the early September launch pad explosion, it would leave the field of competition clear for ULA and its Russian-built rockets as the only path to space for many national security payloads.
The Putin government in Russia made it clear in 2014 that it was willing to block RD-180 sales to U.S. firms if the engines were used to launch Department of Defense – aka military – payloads into space.
The challenge of using Russian rocket engines as the only entry to space for US spaceflight is deeply concerning to Sen. John McCain who has opposed U.S. use of the RD-180, and has tried to get a sunset date placed on their use.
“Little progress has been made in limiting the influence of Russia in space launch,” McCain warned in a January hearing. “Today, Russia holds many of our most precious national security satellites at risk before they ever get off the ground.”
But ULA’s powerful Congressional allies, while skeptical of SpaceX, haven’t appeared to be very worried about Russia’s effective veto over the firm’s operations. Of the 10 lawmakers who signed the letter, 8 represent states where ULA has significant operations.
According to the Washington Free Beacon, earlier in 2016 conservative organizations like Americans for Tax Reform and the Center for Individual Freedom, opposed the further purchase of Russian rocket engines for ULA launches.
Whether or not SpaceX continues to launch rockets remains to be seen, but company head Elon Musk seems confident in the firm’s future. The budding enterprise of free markets in space launch depends in part on the inability of ULA to leverage its bought political clout to forcibly shut down the competition.