EELV Phase 2 and Blue Origin: Where’s the Congressional Curiosity?

BE-4 Powered Booster Credit: Blue Origin

BE-4 Powered Booster
Credit: Blue Origin

Responding to a letter from Congressman Mike Rogers, (R) Al, the GAO has released a report summarizing a presentation made before the House Armed Services Committee on June 6. The report, which is focused on the space launch capabilities of other nations, was requested as the Air Force prepares to structure the next phase of the US Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Termed Phase 2, it begins in 2019, and is supposed to feature open competition between at least two providers. Ostensibly the purpose of the presentation was to examine whether or not any other country has, or is contemplating an arrangement comparable to that in the U.S.

From the GAO letter to Rep Rogers:

Questions have been raised about whether competition among U.S. launch providers can be sustained in the long run given market conditions and competition from foreign launch providers in the global commercial launch market. A key question is the extent to which other countries that launch satellites rely on more than one launch provider with similar capabilities or have been able to foster competition to the extent that the United States is seeking.”

While there is a clear historical basis for the question, especially given the fact that ULA was formed partly as a result of Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s inability to weather a downturn in the projected launch market in the 1990’s, there is more at play here.

Given recent history, the real reason for the question, the answer to which is no mystery, appears to be to build the case for continued subsidy of United Launch Alliance in some manner on the grounds that the global launch market is just not strong enough to support both ULA and SpaceX as well as whoever else may choose to enter.

It is on that latter point where one finds an odd lack of curiosity regarding what will be one of the major players in the domestic launch market during Phase 2.

Blue Origin's Rocket Factory Under Construction

Blue Origin’s Rocket Factory Under Construction

Blue Origin has recently broken ground on a massive rocket manufacturing facility just outside the gates of Cape Canaveral. From what little company founder Jeff Bezos has said publicly, Blue Origin’s primary market appears at least, to be orbital space tourism. It also hopes to be selling BE-4 LNG main engines to ULA for that company’s Vulcan rocket.

But what of Blue Origin’s own plans, or lack thereof, to enter the traditional launch market? Is that assumed, or is there a “non-compete” understanding with ULA?

Based on the company’s remarkable accomplishments with the New Shepard suborbital rocket, its obvious technical competence, the scope of its investment in Florida, and Jeff Bezos’ nearly unparalleled financial resources, Blue Origin’s plans should be of paramount importance to anyone attempting to understand what the market may look like in the very near future.

So why isn’t Congress asking?

 

 

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1 Comment on "EELV Phase 2 and Blue Origin: Where’s the Congressional Curiosity?"

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  1. Tom Billings says:

    “….Blue Origin’s plans should be of paramount importance to anyone attempting to understand what the market may look like in the very near future.

    So why isn’t Congress asking?”

    It could be as simple as “Don’t ask a question you don’t want to hear the answer to”. Then, Senator Shelby will be satisfied as long as ULA keeps getting their subsidy for jobs in Northern Alabama. So, if that fix is already in, why poke a sleeping bear?

    BO can go on forever, at their present rate of expenditure, without ever getting a dime of the money Shelby can influence in any way. They can do so at 4 times their current expenditure unless Amazon somehow collapses. Worse, once they *do* get an orbital vehicle, they can begin getting revenues from outside the country.

    So far, Shelby has fought using what he controls without expending too much political capital, “from the Chair” of his committee. Jeff Bezos has painted a vision that, to me at least, seems far more compatible with the Cislunar work ULA is projecting than does the Mars focus of SpaceX. There seems little conflict in short or medium terms, as long as Tory Bruno has the Senator convinced he can make a competitive vehicle only if he can get BO’s low prices for BE-4 engines. If that deal goes South, then BO becomes a liability to a Senator reassuring workers in ULA plants of Northern Alabama that they will have jobs just as long as he is Chair of his committee.

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