Breaking the Space Monopoly

After over a decade of delays and rancorous internal name-calling by prominent members of Congress on the Senate floor and in Committee, Congress has finally spoken with one voice in its determination to end Russian control of America’s space program.

The Russian-supplied RD-180 rocket engine has for the past two decades monopolized practically all U.S. military and NASA launches. It will likely come as an unpleasant surprise to most Americans that Putin’s Russia controls our space program -- despite Russia being consistently identified by the past four administrations as the primary threat to our national security even with numerous stalled “reset initiatives.” In fact, Putin has on multiple occasions threatened to cut off  the supply of RD-180 rocket engines when threatened with sanctions for the murder of a Russian spy in England, the murderous invasion of Ukraine, and other odious behavior at odds with civilized society that seem to be part and parcel of Putin’s natural orbit. Putin’s toady Dmitry Rogozin, the former deputy prime minister and current head of Russia’s space program, was personally sanctioned by the White House for the Ukraine invasion. Two weeks later, Rogozin declared: “Russia is ready to continue deliveries of RD-180 engines to the U.S. only under the guarantee that they won’t be used in the interests of the Pentagon.”

Russia backed away from the threat after Congress enthusiastically doubled the asked amount and approved $540 Million to purchase 18, instead of the requested 9 more RD-180 rocket engines in 2016 for the U.S. Air Force. However, the mindset behind the statement remains instructive and chilling, as does the Obama administration’s duplicitous lack of resolve.

Thus, the 2016 to 2019, $25 million Bob Mueller Hunt for Red November inquest into Russian collusion and interference in our government needn’t have left the launch pad. The evidence he sought is as elusive and stealthy as the numerous RD-180 rocket engines -- each 11.5 foot tall by 10.3 feet diameter, weighing in at 6 tons, bright silver in color, being unmistakable twin thruster reusable rocket engines that emit the loudest sounds ever recorded in human history (over 200dB), proudly made in Khimki, Moscow Oblast, Russia.

This prior Balonka lapdog mentality of the previous White House, NASA, and some members of Congress has hopefully and thankfully ceased – although another self-interest threat has arisen. Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance, and Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems received yet more appropriations in October 2018 under the first phase of the Air Force's Launch Services Agreement (LSA) contract to begin building a fully American-made rocket in order to end the nation's dependence on the Russian RD-180 rocket engine. And next year, the Air Force will select two companies that meet a range of national security requirements to build their rockets and split upcoming Air Force launches. All is not stable and “mission ready” when it comes to aborting Russian rocket hegemony.

Nevertheless, the crony capitalist billionaires Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) and Elon Musk (SpaceX) have expressed their extreme displeasure with LSA and appear to be ready to launch a familiar, time-tested public relations and lobbying blitzkrieg to get their way. 

When it comes to government programs, both Musk and Bezos are used to getting what they want. Recently, SpaceX filed suit against NASA when the government agency didn’t give Musk a contract he wanted. Similarly, Amazon’s decision to pull out of New York demonstrates just how reliant on cronyism Bezos’ empire has become. In the Bezos/Musk universe, space is property, exploration is a billionaire’s game and spacecraft are playthings for the unthinkably wealthy.

The commercial space race between these two SpaceBoy billionaires has begun to heat up, with both crony capital cosmonauts attempting to establish a competitive advantage, e.g., a personal monopoly funded by public tax dollars, within the space industry. The billionaires’ growing influence in space, while certainly beneficial commercially, at least to them, poses a troubling national security concern and a blow to the economic future of America that only crony capitalism can deliver.

Purportedly due to commercial interests, both Blue Origin and SpaceX oppose the Air Force’s LSA, a program critical to establishing the United States’ spacefaring independence. Their opposition to the program is rather convenient, as both companies have previously been selected by the Air Force to receive LSA contracts. However, as soon as the conditions of the program no longer favor their companies, both Musk and Bezos change their tune and work to obstruct the entire LSA initiative.

While Musk and Bezos’ contribution to space travel is at least moderately positive, they should not be attempting to influence matters of national security while trying to establish a monopoly in space that would make the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age blush. In fact, the upcoming battles between Musk and Bezos to control space travel will undoubtedly closely resemble the Vanderbilt and Fisk rivalry to control the rail transit.

Bezos and Musk must be prevented from cornering the market on space travel for reasons beyond monopolistic crony capitalism market destruction. These are issues of national security, and the SpaceBoy billionaires need to back down. Musk and Bezos, SpaceX and Blue Origin, cannot be allowed to dictate America’s space policy because doing so could potentially jeopardize the country’s national security and cripple the emerging space economy.

Congress has finally come to the inevitable conclusion that the U.S. space program is near death and the American propulsion industry that put us on the Moon perished decades ago. The U.S. Department of Defense is now, finally, pursuing the long-term value of investing in the domestic rocket engine industrial base, and in addressing the long-standing gap in our capabilities to design and build high-performance LOx/hydrocarbon rocket engines, like the RD-180. Encouraging the industry to be more innovative will reduce launch costs long-term, revitalize the U.S. commercial space industry, and prevent the prevalent Russian control of our national interests and security from above the stratosphere.

The Department of Defense and the Air Force are faced with tough choices after decades of disregard and disdain for the national security of America from beyond the stratosphere in a period of strategic uncertainty and severe budget stringency. The constant temptation to pursue low-cost solutions, while understandable, conflicts with the absolute requirement to minimize technical and programmatic risks to ensure reliable access to space that is free from external control by malevolent actors with ulterior motives.  The only way to arrive at an acceptable solution that balances time, cost, and innovation is to begin the New Space Race in earnest through open competition. The LSA is designed to meet that objective, and the RD-180 replacement program must be seen as too important to leave to the crony capitalism self-interests of Musk and Bezos.

W. Bruce DelValle is a constitutional law, technology law, and international law litigator and founding member of the Washington, D.C. litigation firm Fein & DelValle PLLC. He is a native Texan who grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida, graduated from Penn State University and worked as a nuclear power engineer prior to graduating cum laude from Washington and Lee University School of Law.