Congress shouldn't tinker with ULA

Video of the Sept. 1 explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket went viral almost immediately, and no wonder. The blast was enormous, and it is a testament to launch pad safety procedures at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station that no one was injured. According to reports, the concussive force of the explosion shook buildings 5 miles away.

Policy reverberations from the explosion extended far more than 5 miles, and they have not abated.

While it is too soon to know what caused the explosion, those in the Tennessee Valley understand some of its significance. SpaceX has had two major failures in just over a year. United Launch Alliance, which assembles its rockets in Decatur, has never had a launch failure. The company has had 110 successful launches in a row, and another one is slated for today.

One might think ULA’s remarkable reliability in an endeavor where reliability is unusual would cause Congress and the Pentagon to tread carefully. The Defense Department orchestrated the creation of ULA, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., and it has been successful. National security demands our assured access to space, and ULA has provided it perfectly.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

But in the environs of Washington, D.C., every policymaker is an expert. And in their wisdom, many members of Congress have been determined to tinker with ULA.

Most recently, led by U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, Congress attempted to block ULA’s purchase of the Russia-built engines used in the Atlas V rocket. As a long-term goal, weaning off an engine built by Russia makes sense. But the idea that a bunch of lawmakers could impose a reasonable deadline for ULA’s switch to a still-undeveloped domestic replacement was reckless.

Congress and the Pentagon also have harped constantly on the cost of ULA rockets, and indeed they are expensive. SpaceX rockets are a fraction of the cost. Competition is the answer, government officials concluded, and they have aggressively sought to reduce barriers to companies wanting to enter the defense market. We need cheap rockets, they say, and free enterprise is the answer.

Cutting costs, however, can result in sacrificing reliability. It’s too soon to know whether that was the case with the SpaceX explosion, but in general a focus on cost can be expected to be at odds with a devotion to reliability.

As expensive as ULA rockets may be, they are far less expensive than the governmental payloads they typically carry. Those payloads are not just valuable from a financial standpoint, but often from the standpoint of national security. The satellites they carry provide communication platforms for U.S. troops, engage in foreign reconnaissance, and provide early warnings of hurricanes or missile launches.

The Sept. 1 SpaceX failure, like the one in June 2015, was relatively inconsequential in terms of payloads lost. Last year’s mishap destroyed a $118 million NASA payload and complicated efforts to supply the International Space Station. This month’s failure destroyed a private payload that cost a few hundred million dollars.

The ULA launch planned for today will carry an $800 million spacecraft designed to collect samples from an asteroid and return them to Earth. The Atlas V rocket, while expensive, is less than a fifth of the total mission cost.

SpaceX is a well-run company that will learn from its failures, and it may one day provide an alternative launch platform for satellites with national security importance. Congress and the Pentagon, however, should let ULA do what it does best: provide assured access to space.