Yesterday, I expanded on a Space Review post of the possible reasons Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX) is moving launch operations to Texas. The company believes it will conduct about 12 launches a year from its own space launch complexes near Brownsville, Texas. Such a launch rate is more than triple SpaceX’s 2013 launch rate of 3 per year, and beats the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) 2013 rate of 11 launches.
SpaceX may have a few good reasons to move space launch operations away from government–run complexes and organizations. But, as a result hoped for in the Space Review’s article, do SpaceX’s possible reasons for moving impact organizations like NASA and the DoD? Is it a wake-up call for Eastern Range operations, and will they change? Fundamental changes in administrative and space launch operations are unlikely for either NASA or the DoD, even if SpaceX succeeds with their Texas launch operations. This is a very cursory explanation and examination showing why such changes are unlikely.
The Space Review has a decent rundown of the possible reasons SpaceX is building a spaceport in Texas. First, there are too many bureaucratic agencies to work with—each one with very specific rules and requirements. All add a lot of overhead to the already complicated task of building and launching rockets. Second, the Eastern Range is a busy place to launch rockets from and scheduling is very tight. Any slip in schedule might impact overall rocket launch schedules severely. Third, the technology used at the Eastern Range is outdated, and can’t support concurrent operations. Fourth, the insidiousness of mission assurance and its impacts on the overall schedule of the mission. It also reinforces and rewards a culture of risk aversion at any price. The fifth reason—the limitations placed upon visitors before and during a launch, while seeming reasonable from a security standpoint, do not help foster good relations among countries and companies.
It’s a Matter of Motivation
So those might be the reasons why SpaceX is moving launch operations to Texas. But why will SpaceX’s Texas move not change NASA’s or the DoD’s processes? It sometimes helps to answer a question with another question: Have the conditions influencing and motivating NASA and the DoD operations changed? Are the major conditions motivating their behavior any different after SpaceX moves launch operations? No. Politics still heavily influences both organizations’ missions. Their budgets are remaining fairly steady. And government payloads will still require government processes. These conditions definitely influence some of the reasons SpaceX might have as the company moves to Texas.
The military and NASA are political organizations. Each one makes plans and agendas based on input from current officeholders, then changes whenever new administration or congress members are elected to office. Each one must react whenever any of their taskmasters have a question, a complaint, or a comment. The examples used in this post for why things will not change will focus on NASA, as military space tends to operate a bit more in the background.
Even when NASA uses government-approved processes and delivery vehicles, such as Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contracts, it is still publically and politically questioned by senators and representatives who have companies that may suffer in their districts. The latest use of this kind of tactic was conducted by Senator Richard Shelby and Representatives Mo Brooks, Mike Coffman, and Corey Gardner regarding NASA’s use of IDIQ with SpaceX. Shelby and Brooks come from Alabama, where the NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center and one of the ULA’s manufacturing facilities resides. Coffman and Gardner, representatives from Colorado, have the ULA’s headquarters and facilities in their backyard. Gardner, Coffman, and Brooks demanded that NASA change contract terms for more “transparency” into SpaceX’s rocket-building processes for NASA in July 2014. I also wrote another opinion piece, “Crony and the Bandit,” highlighting the antics of these House members.
There’s more to come. There are a few more existing conditions that need to be elaborated upon, showing why NASA, the DoD, and other bureaucracies will not change operations because of SpaceX’s move.