General: Failures May Disrupt Competitive Rocket Launches

The general in charge of Air Force Space Command warned that failures may disrupt how the service buys rocket launches from competitive providers.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify the general’s concerns about launch failures on the industrial base.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The general in charge of Air Force Space Command warned that failures may disrupt how the service buys rocket launches from competitive providers.

The Air Force is working to transition its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, program from a sole supplier to multiple providers capable of launching military and spy satellites. The shift raises fundamental questions about mission assurance and the industrial base, Gen. John Hyten said.

“God forbid, someday we will have an accident again,” he said Tuesday during the Space Symposium conference here. “It’s not going to be the next launch or the launch after that, but it will happen again. It’s the nature of the business.”

Hyten referenced the shuttle disasters in the 1980s and 2000, the Titan rocket accidents in the 1990s and, most recently, the explosion last fall of the Orbital ATK Antares rocket shortly after lifting off from a new launch pad outside Washington, D.C.

“All the tragedies in the space business, what happened after that?” he asked. “We stood down the rocket for a period of time — one year, two years, two and a half years — whatever it took to figure out the root cause of the problem and fix it so it wouldn’t happen again.”

Moving to an acquisition environment in which the Air Force can buy launch services from the incumbent, United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., as well as potential new entrants such as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, will require doing away with a billion-dollar-plus contract currently awarded to ULA to guarantee access to space, Hyten said.

“If something goes wrong, what do you have to do to return to fly in this kind of environment and who makes that decision?” he asked. “Because I’m not going to stand up and put a billion dollar satellite on top of a rocket I don’t know is going to work. And if that’s the case, then that company who now is on this very busy launch schedule is now down. How do they stay in business with the other competitor launching and launching and launching? That’s a fundamental issue.”

Hyten, who said he supports competitive launches and ending the military’s reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 engine used on ULA’s Atlas rocket, expanded on those comments Thursday during a press briefing with reporters.

“I’m actually not worried about the mission assurance side as much as I’m worried about the industry surviving,” he said.

Hyten said he has discussed these questions with ULA Chief Executive Officer Tory Bruno, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, other industry officials, as well as his own staff, but hasn’t yet come up with a solution.

“I don’t know how to do that yet,” he said. “That’s the one element I don’t know.”

Hyten also said the ranges at Vandenburg Air Force Base, California, and at Cape Canaveral, Florida, aren’t equipped to accommodate so many military and commercial launches, and he called on companies to work with the service to build an automated flight safety system. SpaceX on Tuesday launched a spacecraft from the Cape on its latest mission to resupply the International Space Station.

“The fact that the Cape is going to get as many as 40 launches this year is remarkable,” he said. “They’ve about maxed out their capability on their range. We have to build an automated flight safety system and get that approved.”

During a panel discussion earlier in the day, Bruno and Shotwell had different outlooks on the launch market. The EELV is budgeted at $70 billion through fiscal 2030. SpaceX had sued the Air Force for awarding a multi-year block buy contract to ULA for 36 booster cores — the main component of a rocket, including the engine — but dropped the complaint after the service pledged to open more launches to competition.

“There is absolutely room for competition, but the acquisition strategy has to be carefully thought through,” Bruno said, noting that the number of national-security launches is expected to drop from 10 to 12 a year to about five a year. “If you don’t handle that properly, you could end up killing this burgeoning new opportunity to have multiple companies in competition to provide that capability.”

Shotwell said SpaceX’s share of the commercial market alone could increase from 30 percent to more than 50 percent with the planned introduction of the Falcon Heavy rocket. She also cited as business opportunities future NASA contracts for launching both astronauts and supplies to the space station.

“I see a huge growth — an up-tick — in the potential marketplace,” she said, “not a downturn.”


About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Dfens

    Yeah, because that's what competition does, it makes products cost more and perform worse. If only the Air Force could always buy rockets they way they prefer to, where they provide an incentive for sloth and failure by promising the contractor $1.10 for every $1.00 they spend getting a vehicle ready for launch. That's what really gets them the good stuff.

    And let's look at what the reliability of the rockets the US government has bought recently is. None of them has ever show more than one 9 of reliability. Even the Soyuz rockets NASA rents rides on from Russia have only achieved one 9 of reliability. Mean while commercial jet aircraft have gone on to be the most reliable form of transportation available to the public.

    Hyten is such a slave to his defense industry oligarch masters, he'd say anything to be able to continue to provide them with the free money they want from the US taxpayer.

  • Sea Detail

    OK guys, think about it…the belt way bandits and a Air Farce General looking out for his retirement and future employment. Hyten is looking for a seat on a board of a prime defense contractor. Since when has competition hurt anything. As long as the contractors are taking the risks and not the government. Why the fancy EELV – I thought all rockets currently are expendible. But isn't Space x or someone working on a recoverable booster?
    Again I say Ike was right "beware of the defense industrial complex," From the people who have given us the F35 and 400,000 dollar helmet, etc, etc. THe Air Farce wants to dump the A10 in favor of the over priced, short on station and bomb load, and no night vision capability just to improve L/M bottom line and feather some jet jockies nest. My Navy is not much better – LCR's non frigate frigate, etc. General where are the nikes? All safe?

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    It was inevitable that the service would resist competitive disruption of ULA's comfortable monopoly.

  • Hitch Hiker

    There's a lot of truth in what's been said thus far in comments if you watch movies and believe Generals are bad guys or stupid bumbling idiots along with dumb cops and other stereotypes. It's all about after-retirement job hunting and hand-holding with defense contractors, right?

    Eisenhower told us this would happen didn't he? People should go back and listen to Ike's speech and use his comments appropriately. What he didn't have was the answer on how to do anything about the problems with the military-industrial complex given our political arena. I say give General Hyten some credit for trying to think acquisition strategy through because competition isn't providing any of the benefits it's assumed to give us.

    • oblatt23

      No the guy is a corrupt apologist for his masters at Boeing and Lockheed.

  • Big-D

    perhaps we should only have one national bank, one health care provider, one national auto manufacturer, a single brand of shoes, a single brand of coffee…..

    that would be a wonderful world, no of us would be burdened with having to make a choice.

  • rodrigo

    There seems to be a hidden criteria for selecting a launch platform for payloads. If reliability calculations and supported reliability data from actual launches predict hardware configurations will meet the flight requirements, then they should fly the hardware. NASA has launched the shuttle with less certainty, why all of the hesitancy for unmanned flight? Are humans worth less than a spy sat?

    • Frank

      Actually, yes… A human is worth only a few million.

  • JJMurray

    I love people like this who are desperate to protect their own rice bowls one way or another. Will competition increase risk because some people will try to snake oil their way into the field? You bet. Is the overall gain from real world competition worth it in the end? Absolutely. Just imagine if they had never let anyone actually play with the baby internet and instead kept it safe and sound and under government control because some general said "People might get their identities stolen someday if we let people just muck around with this thing:.

  • oblatt23

    The idea here is that rather then have a bunch of suppliers competing for the new engine if the bar is raised high enough – say make them build the whole rocket too – everyone but the favored monopolists cant compete.

    Then there is the made up "problem" of not enough launch space.

    Hyten hasn't got all the requirements worked out yet but hes sure he can put together a package that ensures that Lockheed and Boeing are protected from any competition.

  • Super Tex

    And the day that we quit having accidents, in space. Is the day that we should stop US Space Exploration. That has got the be without question, the DUMBEST thing I have ever heard describing space . Does this General not think lives will be lost, on the way to Mars and….Exploring Mars ??? Not to mention, further out in space ? Or is the General speaking out of HIS WALLET…………..Where Boeing is PAYING HIM ?????? Plus this guy has spent far to much time in Near Earth Orbit…………………..Far to much time.

    • Dfens

      Grow a pair.