It’s over. They worked out an agreement.
The boss stuck his head into the conference room to make the announcement. Judging from the look on everyone’s face, clearly, there was some confusion. Interrupting our meeting and just blurting out late-breaking news does this.
How could it be over when we were just getting started?
We met to discuss the improvements we wanted from a competition to hand over the Space Shuttle’s operations to a single company. At the time, the Space Shuttle operation was made up of many contractors, pretty much those who built it. The Shuttle was not a business that took delivery and sent the manufacturers away to await calls for tech support. Instead, the manufacturers stuck around in a seamless segue to operate and launch it all.
Perhaps I finagled an invite to this meeting because of my interest in the possibilities. Like a kid in a candy store, I saw no end to the goodies we might get once “under new management.” However, in retrospect, my invite was probably for lack of takers, with few others seeing much change ahead. Frankly, I landed in this meeting suitable for many pay grades above me as my naivety exceeded my curiosity.
The words reusable and SpaceX appear zero times in the report.
It was 1994 or so, and the following year saw the formation of the United Space Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Rockwell (the latter really being Boeing at the time.) With time we would find that the Shuttle program was a Humpty-Dumpty who fell off a wall at birth and was quite tricky to put back together again. With time the expected road-shows advertised all the savings since USA was formed. Yet budgets (so costs) had already started dropping before the formation of USA. As well, adjusting for a reduced flight rate in the years following the reduced costs just ended up where they should have been – less cost for less launches. Right-sizing vs. improvements, and costs per year vs. cost per flight, were often conflated in the ensuing debates about savings. How could the output of a new, bigger, single contract not be significant “efficiencies” after all?
Just as the boss said, the scheme to compete who might best operate the Space Shuttle was over.
Competition, or better said, lack thereof, is the subject of a recent report from the US DOD, among all the aerospace news competing for our attention. There is not much new in this news, but there are plenty of oddities. For one, nine years after the DOD opened up national security launch to competition, and 5 years after SpaceX first launched a national security payload, the report lists only Boeing and Lockheed Martin as “primes” for “expendable launch vehicles.” The words reusable and SpaceX appear zero times in the report. As if continuing the thought competition is good, perhaps, who knows – the report asks we forget pricing. The early line “Although studies of this trend have not found a strong correlation between consolidation and increased program pricing…” (my underline) is not a glowing endorsement of a need for competition in the US DOD.
Space is hard. But it’s just physics. Competition is harder, as it’s about people.
Ronin, like myself, often worked on projects for DOD. (Full disclosure: I worked with DOD as a NASA employee, on and off since 2000, until I retired in 2021. If you want to understand the ins and outs of this, your next item to dissect is who runs what between Star Trek’s Starfleet vs. the Federation.) And therein come to mind more terms missing in action in this DOD report on competition, and its seeming lack of enthusiasm for it, to judge from the lukewarm phrasing throughout. Federal agencies can all learn from each other, but NASA’s successful commercial partnerships are never mentioned. That would mean mentioning Falcon 9s, Falcon Heavies, or Starships. It would mean talking about redundancy in partners for next-level complex systems, from Starliner, to Dragon to Cygnus, all for less costs (even combined) than having just a sole source. It would also mean mentioning fixed-price contracts and having two suppliers for basic operational needs, each a backup to the other. Finally, it would mean touching on the ability to walk away from a capability by constantly nurturing more and better capabilities elsewhere in the wings (pun intended). The alternative is the occasional anti-trust action preventing a merger. But mostly, we get a slow spiral toward ever fewer contractor options. If we do not put a trend in reverse, it will go forward.
Space is hard. But it’s just physics. Competition is harder, as it’s about people. A single, constant signal is so much easier than trying to listen to many voices. This is so even when those many voices point out the changes necessary to keep an organization relevant. In 2013 I had the rare opportunity to even enlist prime contractors as co-authors to espouse anti-trust measures that would make recent FTC actions seem bashful by comparison. (The meeting included a Risky Business moment of realization.) We knew then as now, in the annals of NASA and launch systems lessons learned, there’s as much to add about new policy as about new technology.
This is not the first report ever on how consolidation in the US aerospace sector might not be good – at all. In 1996 GAO got the understatement of the year award for “Documented savings from business combinations have not always been as great as initially expected.” And this is when mergers just began, with more to follow. Ten years after United Space Alliance, Boeing and Lockheed again joined forces for launching DOD payloads as United Launch Alliance. Ironically, it fell indirectly to NASA to add competition to the national security space launch picture by investing in SpaceX for cargo to the ISS. (After Starfleet vs. the Federation, let’s also debate why all Starship construction is at Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards on Mars.)
All of this has happened before, and it will happen again. But does it have to? Or contrary to what the boss said, and more like Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
And for a walk down memory lane:
- 2005 United Launch Alliance Master Agreement with the US Securities Exchange Commision
- 2006 Boeing to Pay United States Record $615 Million to Resolve Fraud Allegations
- 2006 Rocket Monopoly Approved
- 2010 Corporate Space Launch Puts Pentagon in ‘Awkward Position
- 2011 Pentagon Will Back Defense Mergers Outside Top Five Companies
- 2011 GAO Skewers United Launch Alliance Contract Plans
- 2012 USAF: Space rocket costs could spike by 40 percent
- 2012 Lawmakers Seek To Curb EELV Block Buy
- 2012 Lockheed-Boeing Launch Monopoly to Be Ended by Pentagon
- 2012 Pentagon Opens Up Launch Market to Competition
- 2013 Antitrust probe of Lockheed-Boeing rocket venture
- 2014 Court presses SpaceX and Air Force to resolve case in mediation
- 2016 (Ending the yearly subsidy) U.S. Air Force evaluating early end for ULA’s $800 million in yearly support
- 2016 ULA executive admits company cannot compete with SpaceX on launch costs
- 2017 Agreement on goals, but no easy answer for future of national security space launch, experts say
- 2019 (The yearly subsidy is still around after all) Air Force awards ULA $1.18 billion contract to complete five Delta 4 Heavy NRO missions
- 2020 In a consequential decision, Air Force picks its rockets for mid-2020s launches