Wait, SpaceX is a launch monopoly now? Ron Paul seems to think so.
You may remember Paul as the libertarian Republican who last ran for president in 2012, and as the father of current Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. The elder Paul re-emerged yesterday to pen an op-ed for Fox News that declares, ” Crony defense budget hands SpaceX a monopoly.”
It’s true that SpaceX has enjoyed a string of recent rocket successes, including the fact that Elon Musk’s rocket company broke through into the market for supplying space launches to military and defense clients. But a monopoly? A monopoly is what existed before SpaceX entered the market, when the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, was the sole provider of military launches for more than a decade.
What Paul is on about is the new National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2018, which the Senate is considering. According to his op-ed:
This year’s NDAA expressly forbids the Air Force from developing new launch vehicles by restricting expenditures to the development of new engines or the modification of existing systems. This prohibition is supposedly designed to address the “Russian threat” — a threat manufactured by those seeking a new Cold War. In addition to flaming anti-Russian hysteria, this provision makes the company SpaceX the only affordable option for launch services.
The issue looming in the background here is the Atlas V rocket, which ULA has used for years-and which relies upon Russian-made RD-180 engines. Just as NASA really wants American companies to start launching astronauts again so it needn’t rely on Russian rockets, the U.S. government wants to launch satellites on rockets that don’t use Russian parts.
By forbidding the military from spending money on new engine development, Paul argues, the federal government is giving SpaceX a de facto monopoly. But as Ars Technica points out, the Air Force doesn’t want to build a whole new launch system:
This funding mechanism allows for United Launch Alliance to solicit engines from both Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne for its next-generation Vulcan launch vehicle. The authorization act Paul is lambasting as crony capitalism, therefore, is providing funding to United Launch Alliance to build a rocket that can compete with SpaceX on price.
Ars pointed out that Boeing and Lockheed have been big contributors to Paul in the past, which may explain his willingness to throw a punch at their rival. Whatever the reason, the core principle here is one we can all get behind. Let’s keep competition in the American rocket business and let no one business-legacy or startup-dominate the business.