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Sen. Levin Says SASC Seeks ‘Balance’ On SpaceX, ULA; Block Buy Remains Intact

Posted by Colin Clark on

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COLORADO SPRINGS: SpaceX does not look likely to get what it most wants from Capitol Hill in its battle against the United Launch Alliance and the Air Force: more launches sooner.

Support for competition between the two companies remains vibrant, with Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Jim Clapper, director of National Intelligence, separately calling today for increased competition in the business of launching America’s national security satellites.

But Levin’s committee, in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, did not do what SpaceX owner Elon Musk most wanted: break up the block-buy purchase of rocket cores from ULA.

After his formal Capitol Hill briefing on the NDAA this afternoon, Levin told reporters that the SASC wants “to get them [SpaceX] certified as quickly as they can so they can compete. Until they’re certified we want to be able to keep the program going and we want to get the benefit of that block-buy program, four billion bucks savings. We try to balance.”

The Air Force is spending $60 million and has 100 people working to see if SpaceX’s rockets and launch processes are reliable enough to warrant the United States risking its most expensive satellites by contracting with Musk to loft them into orbit.

The bill includes language to “ensure as much competition as possible,” the senator said.

As a sweetener, the SASC added $100 million to the bill to start development of a domestic alternative to the Russian’s RD-180, something Gen. Willie Shelton, head of Air Force Space Command, said earlier this week he personally supported. At least one Russian official, a Deputy Prime Minister, has said the Kremlin would refuse to sell more RD-180s to the United States as long as they are intended for the Pentagon.

Here in Colorado Springs, DNI Clapper voiced vibrant support for greater competition for national security launches, which his budget usually pays the highest rates –$350 million each — for because NRO satellites are often the size of s school bus.

“I do want to give a shout-out to SpaceX,” he told the National Space Symposium here, noting that he recently visited their plant and launch site. “I’ve been tremendously impressed with their ingenuity, drive and aggressiveness.”

Barring success in the courts, which may alienate his main customer, Musk may just have to wait to be certified and then press harder. Sen. Levin said emphatically that the committee would not change the requirements for certification.

What do you think?