The ability of the United States to have a robust missile and space vehicle launch capability is critical to its current and future national security, particularly as space-based satellites and other assets are critical to our economic and military success.
Recently, NASA funded a program called Commercial Crew, which allows astronauts to fly to the international space station from privately produced and operated crew vehicles, with SpaceX and Boeing both being asked to provide such a capability.
However, the program has had delays and cost increases. But as U.S. Air Force official Dr. Will Roper noted, “larger than life” private space pioneers and legacy space providers (such as SpaceX and Boeing) are both innovators who can solve the space challenges the United States faces.
Recently, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General reported that Boeing received nearly $300 million in extra funding for its part in the Commercial Crew program. SpaceX claims it was not offered the same opportunity to negotiate over price, although NASA says it operated through a rigorous approval process and a fair agreement with Boeing.
What are the facts?
First, it is true both contractors have experienced delays in the Commercial Crew program.
Second, providing extra funding is nothing new in space travel. SpaceX had previously raised its prices for the commercial resupply missions to the International Space Station mission by 50 percent after already having its pricing settled via contract.
Third, the SpaceX Crew Dragon initiative had both a 2019 landing pad explosion and a failed parachute test, and delayed the launch of its 60 Starlink Satellites, while other SpaceX rocket launches were scrubbed due to technology and safety glitches.
In light of these factors, it is understandable that NASA would pay at this time a premium for increased reliability and safety and go with a legacy space company, even while also funding pioneers.
We need both pioneers and legacy contractors, as we have to put into space new technologies at what former Secretary of Defense James Mattis called “the speed of relevance” while at the same time making sure such efforts were reliable.
This is made even more critical because, following the end of the Cold War, we forgot about strategic challenges, especially in the nuclear and space arenas.
We decided to buy rocket motors from the Russians under the assumption that Moscow could be a new partner. Unfortunately, the space shuttle and space station also tended to dominate the space business, and the country paid less attention to other elements of our space industrial base.
Then with the accidental destruction of a key rocket motor facility in California, America came over time to be overly dependent on Russian rocket engines — just at a time when relations worsened considerably — and the U.S. rocket engine industrial base shrank.
Vladimir Putin then ascended to the leadership in Russia and adopted a massive militarization program, especially in the field of nuclear weapons, while adopting a strategy of escalating crises through the threatened use of nuclear weapons to “win.” The objective, said one Global Strike Command leader, was to get the United States to stand down in a crisis and not even come to the defense of our allies.
In that light, both legacy and pioneer companies in the space business are critical to our future security. All bring something important to the table.
Here the NASA IG report missed the boat.
Boeing’s commitment remains strong to the success of the Commercial Crew program, and keeping the Space Station crewed and operational through its CST-100 Starliner. Boeing did offer single-digit pricing in the original contract (which did not change) for the post-certification missions, thus adding flexibility and resiliency to mission readiness, especially 2/3rds shorter lead times in adjusting launch dates for a 5 percent price increase.
Even though Boeing benefited from a previously developed cargo vehicle that was funded for several years by NASA, the Boeing vessel has seats available for five, not four, because of the equivalent cargo space being provided.
The Starliner flies on the Atlas V rocket, the most reliable lifter in the business, and which touches back down to earth on land, not a splashdown, considered a more safe mode. The parachute tests also were successful, as were the tests of the propulsion system. The orbital test flight is scheduled for December 17, and the first crew will be flown in early 2020.
Ultimately, NASA’s decision to pay Boeing a premium was not a mistake. It was instead a carefully calculated choice to prioritize the safety and security of future missions over the cost of doing so. Commercial Crew is an important mission and NASA recognized this fact and selected at this time its contractors accordingly.
Peter Huessy is president of GeoStrategic Analysis, a national security defense analysis firm in Potomac, Md.
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