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Air Force space chief on SpaceX, engine issues

May. 21, 2014 - 03:00PM   |  
29th National Space Symposium
Shelton on SpaceX suit: 'Generally, the person you're going to do business with you don't sue.' (Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz/Air Force)
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COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — Speaking at his last National Space Symposium before his retirement in August, Gen. William Shelton, the head of Air Force Space Command, expressed frustration with the SpaceX decision to sue the Air Force over its award of a block-buy of launches to the United Launch Alliance (ULA).

Shelton also indicated he would like to see an American-made rocket engine for military launches, but has concerns over where that funding stream would come from.

“When you’re spending $60 million and putting 100 people against the problem to get somebody certified, it’s hard to say you’re excluding them,” Shelton said about the SpaceX suit, which alleges that the service was blocking the Elon Musk-founded company from entering competition.

“They can’t compete, will not compete, until they are certified,” Shelton said. “The fact that SpaceX has completed three certification launches, that’s just openers. There’s a tremendous amount of analysis that needs to be completed and it’s in cooperation with SpaceX. This is a certification process they willingly signed up to, and we will continue to work that certification process.”

As an example of how his office is trying to move launch competition forward, Shelton noted that the service is willing to offer a contingent award to SpaceX for a competitive launch before they are officialy certified. Certification is expected in December or January.

“It’s very difficult to pick up the pace on” the certification process, Shelton said. “It just takes time, it takes money and it takes people. I think SpaceX would have a hard time going faster.”

Asked directly if he was frustrated by SpaceX’s decision to sue, Shelton visibly held his tongue before responding, “Generally, the person you’re going to do business with you don’t sue.”

The other major issue around military launch is the future of the RD-180 engine, a Russian-produced product vital to the ULA’s Atlas V program. Reports from Russia, including comments from Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, indicated that the country is ready to cut off RD-180 sales for military launches.

Like ULA President Michael Gass, Shelton indicated there has been no official notice that the halting of sales for the engine are coming.

“This is a time to pause and find out if this is the official position, but right now I don’t think we have indication that is really where the government is long-term,” Shelton said. “There are other indications that business as usual is kind of the state of play with Russian industry.”

While declining to describe those “other indications,” Shelton reiterated that reacting quickly to Rogozin’s comments would be counterproductive. “Everybody needs to sit back and let his develop for a while, just like any other diplomatic thing,” Shelton said. “For us to make pronouncements and form hard positions this early in the game is very unfortunate.

Members of Congress have indicated they want to see an American-made engine replacement. Last week, the House Armed Services Committee put in $220 million towards a new engine as part of their defense bill.

While noting he personally favors developing a new engine, Shelton showed some discomfort with exactly where that funding stream would come from given the well-documented budget crunch the Air Force is operating under.

“I expressed that reservation to Congress, and they said, ‘You don’t worry about that. Tell us what you need and we’ll worry about the money,’ ” Shelton said. “Obviously it’s a zero sum, at some level. So where is that money coming from? I don’t think it can come from the space portfolio because I feel like I’m on the ragged edge already.”

Shelton said estimates run between five and eight years to develop and produce a new engine, but noted that “we don’t really know” until a program gets underway. Similarly, costs would be uncertain, although estimates have ranged around $1 billion.

He also said he didn’t see co-production for the RD-180 as a way forward because it would still create reliance on Russian information and technology, and it would not save much money. Shelton said he believes a next-generation rocket engine would be based on hydrocarbon boost.

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