the last few weeks, SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has taken a beating
in the media. Recent negative stories include Tesla’s haltingof
important brake testing in desperation to meet production goals for its
Model 3 sedan, Musk lashing out
with an unfounded accusation when he was challenged on his involvement
in the high-profile Thailand cave rescue, the Securities and Exchange
an investigation into Musk for possible
violations of federal security laws regarding a cryptic tweet about
having secured funding to take Tesla private, and subsequent stories
about concerns from Tesla’s board regarding Musk’s mental state.
hasn’t gotten much coverage, though, is a provision in the Fiscal
Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Agreement (NDAA)
signed into law last week, which may have been crafted with the explicit
purpose of giving Musk something to be cheery about.
year, I and many others noticed that
the FY 2018 NDAA would restrict funding for new launch systems,
seemingly leaving SpaceX’s Falcon 9 as the last man standing. The year
prior, SpaceX donor-recipient John McCain also inserted
an amendment into the NDAA that would have
banned the use of the Russian-made RD-180 engine before other American
alternatives were created – again, ostensibly making SpaceX a gatekeeper
of the government rocket-launching world.
while those efforts proved futile, the third time appears to have been
the charm for SpaceX.
year, the potential damage comes in the form of Congress unduly
pressuring the military to utilize reusable rockets, which right now
come only from SpaceX. The issue isn’t that Section 1603 of the
recently-passed FY 2019 NDAA authorizes consideration of reusable
rockets where appropriate, but that it also adds extra burdens through a
requirement that the Secretary of Defense explain in writing to Congress
if the agency proposes using space launch services “for which the use of
reusable launch vehicles is not eligible for the award of the contract.”
in other words, is subtly placing its own judgment, possibly influenced
by crony back-scratching, over that of the relevant national security
this said, there’s not yet need to fret. Although aspects of Section
1603 may have the intent of favoritism, if the Pentagon does its
research and Congress asks the right questions, it can still serve a
national security purpose. Instead of artificially bringing more
business to SpaceX, the bill language can, if appropriately acted upon,
spark long overdue examination of the merits of reusable versus
expendable rockets, leading to more informed legislatures and improved
and his advocates believe reusable rockets are the future of the space
industry, but others’ research has led them to think it is an
impractical idea that sounds good in theory but doesn’t work well in
that the government’s partially-reusable Space Shuttle, retired in 2011,
was supposed to provide America with easy access to space for $10.5
million per launch. Instead, the per-flight cost
averaged at around
$1.6 billion. Fourteen astronauts died on board due to quality
One can certainly speculate about the degree to which government
mismanagement and bureaucracy caused these shortcomings and hypothesize
that SpaceX’s results will be different; however, the good news is that
Pentagon and congressional decision-makers don’t need to surmise. The
company already has a whole body of completed work in this sphere that
they can review.
summer, SpaceX retired its
reusable Block 4 rocket class. Did it have an acceptable success rate?
Was its re-flight goal achieved? Did it bring costs up or down?
are all questions that policymakers should ask and receive answers to
before making contracting decisions.
I don’t have access to this in-depth Block 4 data and lack the necessary
expertise to render a final verdict, I do know that each Block 4 booster
could only fly two
to three times, which seems to be much lower
than necessary from a cost-effectiveness standpoint.
facts and figures, not speculation from analysts like me, should shape
government policy. That’s why it’s critical for the Pentagon and
Congress to use Section 1603 to the country’s advantage by taking a deep
dive into the data and separating fact from fiction, and industry
boasting, themselves. Through conducting the proper research and asking
the right questions, they can single handedly turn one potential
corporate handout into a blessing.