Chair Force Engineer

Saturday, October 22, 2005

David vs. Goliath^2

Upstart space launch company SpaceX is suing to block a merger of Boeing and LockMart's space launch businesses into the United Launch Alliance (ULA.) If the Federal Trade Commission approves the merger, all American rockets (aside from the smallest ones like Pegasus and Minotaur) will be built by ULA and sold to the Defense Department, NASA, and commercial firms without competition.

The American spirit tends to embrace competition in the free market. It is competition that keeps corporations in check and prevents them from becoming too powerful. Competition also spurns innovation and lowers costs for consumers. Naturally, we should be skeptical about the ULA.

On the other hand, it's not accurate to assume that the space launch industry is truly competitive as it is. The Delta and Atlas rocket production lines are operating well below capacity due to a lack of payloads. The Air Force is also committed to maintaining two viable launch systems by supporting both Delta and Atlas.

The importance of this redundancy cannot be overstated. After the Challenger was lost, NASA seriously considered the HL-20 mini-shuttle as an alternate means of bringing crews to and from the space station. This idea was not followed through (neither were HL-20's successors, X-38 and Orbital Space Plane.) When Columbia was lost in 2003, the space station was choked by a lack of supplies and crew that would normally ride on the shuttle. Only Russia's Soyuz and Progress could continue to support a manned presence on the space station.

Should either Delta IV or Atlas V experience a major failure, it would make much sense to shift payloads on the grounded rocket to the functioning one. If the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) effort was truly competitive, Lockheed Martin could have offered an Atlas V Heavy after serious anomalies were encountered on Delta IV Heavy's test flight. However, Lockheed Martin has been slow to match the Delta IV in all capabilities; they started much later than Boeing did on the Vandenberg Launch Pad (and now LockMart is trying to muscle SpaceX from their existing pad nearby LockMart's Atlas V pad,) and they haven't seriously offered the Atlas V Heavy to potential customers.

If anything, ULA could save the taxpayers money in the short term. LockMart would close down its Atals plant in Colorado (featured in Michael Moore's travesty Bowling for Columbine,) and move it to Boeing's under-utilized Delta IV factory in Alabama. Presumably, ULA would continue marketing the Russian Proton and Angara rockets, as LockMart's subsidiary (International Launch Services) had done in the past. ULA would also be likely to market the Delta II, although that rocket's days in active service are coming to a bittersweet end.

If SpaceX's Falcon family can work reliably and approach the cost goals claimed by SpaceX, Boeing and LockMart might need the ULA to survive in the space launch business. Assuming that ULA does not choke SpaceX during the company's gestation, SpaceX could quickly grow to rival the bloated ULA juggernaut.

Americans love an underdog, and SpaceX is that underdog in the space launch market. It's going up against the ULA, a hollow shell of the aerospace industry in its cold-war glory days. In the short-term, ULA will be a monopoly, and it may have the potential to suppress innovative upstart firms like SpaceX. Once SpaceX emerges, however, ULA will be a needed force to balance a diverse space launch market with taxpayer savings.