The Air Force’s recently-awarded launch contracts to Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance have sparked controversy in the world of commercial space flight. Musk fired off an angry tweet at his competitor, calling them a “complete waste of taxpayer money.”
I should point out that I’m a strong supporter of commercial space flight and a fan of much of Musk’s work. I’m happy to see him bring Tesla to Texas. There’s nearly always something interesting and important for the future going on at his launch facility on the Texas coast. We may be entering a second golden age of American space flight. SpaceX almost singlehandedly broke the launch monopoly that inhibited American space exploration for far too many years. Since then, the company has pushed the goals and aspirations of space travel into the 21st century, and its efforts have played a huge role in significantly driving down industry costs. Not only is all of this good, it’s just cool. We’re back in space in a big way. Observing Musk’s daring successes brings to mind the days of Thomas Edison and Howard Hughes.
But for anyone objectively looking at the numbers within the new contract specifically, Musk’s recent comments make no sense.
ULA will receive $336 million from the Pentagon for two missions in Phase 2 of the National Security Space Launch, while SpaceX will get $316 million for just one. SpaceX’s $316 million price tag came despite Musk promising Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy pricing between $90 million and $150 million. It’s unclear whether the company missed its initial cost estimate or if it just believed that it could get away with bidding higher for this contract. Regardless of the reasoning, the price tag was indeed surprising, as Space News pointed out, and it’s likely why the company only received 40-percent of the Pentagon’s contracts this go-around.
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Again, it’s hard to criticize Musk because I like SpaceX and everything the company has done to put America back in the driver’s seat of spaceflight. This summer, I spent an entire piece praising the company for saving NASA money and becoming the first private company to send astronauts into space. Still, Musk’s critique of the Air Force’s recent contracting decision doesn’t make any sense.
By effectively criticizing the Pentagon for price-shopping, Elon is playing a dangerous game. After all, it’s the Pentagon’s refusal to price shop or consider marketplace alternatives that kept him out of the industry for so long, and unfairly so. It’s a problem that Musk himself effectively solved through his lawsuit with the Pentagon – perhaps the key piece to his impressive legacy to date. Critiquing the Air Force for closely examining all the options on the table may make sense for select industry players. However, it never does for taxpayers or the health of the defense industry overall. Beyond all that, competition is good. It forces efficiencies and innovations.
Musk continues to tout the long-term benefits of reusable rockets and multi-planetary travel. Both ideas are great and will one day revolutionize the space industry. At the same time, however, the Pentagon is paying him for a delivery service, not for the trial and error needed to bring his passion projects to fruition. In the present, rockets are needed for payload delivery. Cost-efficiency is key to funding future projects.
Rather than critique the government for using other contractors in conjunction with SpaceX, it might be best if Musk continues to compete and innovate so that he becomes even more price competitive for missions at every level. That’s the best way to ensure that his concern of the Pentagon wasting taxpayer dollars never again occurs.
Bryan Preston is the author of Hubble’s Revelations: The Amazing Time Machine and Its Most Important Discoveries. He’s a writer, former NASA producer, veteran, author, and Texan.