WASHINGTON — Sunday's explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket headed to resupply the International Space Station has cast into stark relief one of the challenges facing the Air Force as it moves to a competitive military launch environment — what happens if a military launch fails, and forces a competitive company to pause work?
It is a concern that was first brought up publicly by Gen. John Hyten, the head of US Air Force Space Command, at April's National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs by Gen. John Hyten, the head of US Air Force Space Command. Hyten warned that a failed launch is inevitable and argued that the service needs to figure out how to handle the industrial base issues that will come with it.
Hyten pointed out that in the past, a military launch failure in the past would cause the provider to be shut down for however long it took to find the issue and make sure it was corrected, —which, given the thoroughness of Pentagon inspectors, could take as long much as two years.
That's unpleasant, but doable, when there is only one company providing the launch. After all, the United Launch Alliance could turn towards its Delta IV system if the Atlas V failed, and vice-versa.
But in a competitive market, shutting down a company for a significant period of time could be a major blow to their cash flow, one which could even cause the company to simply close up shop. Imagine if Sunday's explosion had occurred with a military payload on board, and SpaceX was then barred from entering the Falcon 9 for military launches for the next 18 months while the investigation unfolds.
"If something goes wrong, what do you have to do to return to fly in this environment and who makes that decision? Because I'm not going to stand up and put a billion dollar satellite on top of a rocket I don't know is going to work," Hyten explained during the Ssymposium. "And if that's the case, then that company, which is now on a very busy launch schedule, is now down. How do they stay in business with the other competitor now launching and launching?
"I don't know how to do that yet," Hyten said, noting he needs to talk with industry partners to find a solution. "That's the one element I don't know."
In an interview with Defense News, done conducted a day after Hyten's comments in April, SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell said there is no easy answer to how to handle that situation, but offered some thoughts on how to handle a post-disaster scenario.
"There's contractual ways to address his concern," she said, such as building "into my national security contract that they get to see two success before I fly again, and maybe there are penalties if there is delays associated with that."
SpaceX was finally certified for military launch in May and is preparing to compete for launch contracts under the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. But Sunday's explosion plays into the hands of the rival United Launch Alliance and its supporters in Congress, whose pitch to the Pentagon has been based around its long track record of launches without a failure.
Assured access to space does not just mean having multiple launch vehicles, company executives have argued. It also means the experience of multiple successful launches. The SpaceX explosion gives ULA a clear comparison to point to when arguing that their Atlas V or Delta IV launch vehicles are more trustworthy than the Falcon 9.
The failure was the first for the company following 18 successful launches. Following the explosion, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted out that the issue appeared to be "an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank" and said the company would continue to collect data.
In a statement, an Air Force spokesperson said it's too early to assess any impact that the SpaceX launch failure has on future DoD launch missions," and added that the Pentagon is "is firmly committed to smoothly transitioning our launch enterprise with a continued strong focus on maintaining assured access to space for National Security Space missions."