Is it 'game over' for competition at NASA?

On Feb. 6, Elon Musk's SpaceX finally launched its Falcon Heavy rocket after four years of delays.  While there were some minor issues – namely, its third booster crashing and its Tesla Roadster payload running off course in orbit –  the test was, for the most part, successful.

The positive news surrounding a private space-flight launch would typically satisfy conservatives en masse, but this one has caused some to raise their eyebrows – and understandably so.  It seems that Musk tries to leverage every corporate talking point deserving of at least a golf clap to his legislative advantage, and this one doesn't appear to be any different.

Shortly before the Falcon Heavy's launch, Musk remarked, "If we are successful in this, it is game over for all other heavy lift rockets."  This comment may seem harmless on its face, but in the face of recent attempts by some members of Congress to introduce protectionist legislative language that would ostensibly bolster SpaceX's business interests, such a statement is alarming.

The Falcon Heavy has been at the forefront of these anti-competitive efforts.  In fact, last year, some members of the Armed Services Committee entertained language in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would have handed this very rocket line a near monopoly over heavy-lift launch services.  While this amendment failed to pass the legislative finish line, I worry that the recent lift-off, coupled with a new lobbying or quasi-lobbying effort, could finally give SpaceX's "game over" idea the popularity threshold it needs to succeed.

Lawmakers must remain steadfastly opposed to any effort that would limit competition in space flight, especially if it involves propping up a launch vehicle like the Falcon Heavy that has yet to prove itself reliable.

The Falcon Heavy successfully launched this time, but no one – not even Musk himself – knows if it will go off next time.  In fact, right up until launch day, Musk did not have any indication of whether the rocket would come back in one piece, stating vaguely that it will either be "an exciting success or an exciting failure."  Months earlier, he remarked that he just hoped it wouldn't cause pad damage.

The larger problem is that even if the Falcon Heavy ends up being fully functional, it still isn't appropriate for a significant portion of governmental missions.  As the Wall Street Journal reported this month, many defense experts find it "too small for ferrying crews or delivering major cargo packages into deep space," as well as "too big to serve today's generation of smaller satellites."

Most of the Falcon Heavy's usability problems stem from the years of delays SpaceX had in getting it off the ground.  The company unveiled its plans for the rocket in 2011 and targeted 2013-2014 for its first launch, a goal that ultimately got entirely away from it.  

The reality is that the launch market has changed radically since the start of the decade, when production for the Falcon Heavy began.  Today's looming national security threats have caused the government and other national security customers to search for smaller satellites that have less appeal to terrorist forces.  In fact, Gen. John Hyten, head of the U.S. Strategic Command and former leader of the U.S. Space Command, has explicitly said he "will not support buying big satellites that make juicy targets."

Hyten says the threat level to U.S. military spacecraft is currently at a "five but moving to 10 quickly."  It worries him that the Air Force spends so much on large satellites, which puts this country in a vulnerable position – in his own words, an "un-defendable" state.  Utilizing the Falcon Heavy, which was built to serve larger satellites, may have made sense in 2013, but it taking center stage for the Pentagon now is wholly inappropriate – at least for most national security missions.

All of this is occurring in an environment in which the World Economic Forum 2018 Global Risk Report puts the risk of nuclear war at the top of its list.

Unfortunately, the prospect of quickly changing the government appropriations process isn't as rosy as one would hope.  Hyten has noted that we tend to move and adapt much more slowly than our adversaries in the space realm.

Given these factors, it's clear that now is the time to innovate and grow, not say "game over" to a competitive marketplace.  It's time for our representatives to wise up before it’s "game over" for the safety and security of our nation.

Edward Woodson is host of the nationally syndicated Edward Woodson Show, which airs daily from 3 to 6 P.M. EST on gcnlive.com.