Commentary

Covering for SpaceX … Again?

By Jessie Jane Duff | July 2, 2019 | 11:07am EDT
(Photo by GREGG NEWTON/AFP/Getty Images)

Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) is at it again. On June 10, 2019, the House Armed Services Committee Chairman proposed legislation that would materially benefit SpaceX, ensuring it an advantage over its competition within the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program.

Smith’s addendum to the 2020 defense authorization bill would alter the rules of competition for the Air Force’s NSSL program, providing SpaceX with its very own earmark. The amendment would, according to spacenews.com, cut a $500-million-dollar taxpayer-funded check to “companies that win a Phase 2 procurement contract but were not awarded funds by the Air Force” under the first phase of the program.

What’s the one company likely to fit that exact specification? SpaceX, of course.

Unfortunately, this type of blatant pandering is not new for the HASC Chairman. Rep. Smith has a storied history of protecting Elon Musk’s rocket company from the vicissitudes of fair competition, especially when it comes to the NSSL program.

The NSSL initiative was designed to create domestic rocket prototypes, which would then be implemented to phase out America’s current dependence on Russian propulsion systems. As it currently stands, the United States is almost completely dependent upon the Russian RD-180 rocket to transport its heaviest payloads into space. The NSSL has substantial national security-related implications—as the Air Force has stated: the successful and timely completion of the NSSL program by its 2022 deadline is essential to securing the nation’s interests in space.

In October 2018, the Air Force moved forward with the program on schedule, selecting three aerospace firms to participate in Phase 1 of the NSSL program. SpaceX was not one of them. It was later revealed by none other than Elon Musk that SpaceX failed to receive a launch contract because the company had written an admittedly poor proposal to the Air Force. Still, that didn’t stop Chairman Smith from springing to SpaceX’s defense.

On March 28, 2019, Smith wrote a letter to then-Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, expressing his concerns that the Air Force was pressing ahead too quickly with its NSSL program. He “encourage[d]” the Air Force to independently review and reconsider its selection process for awarding contracts—presumably a not-so-subtle threat that the military’s decision to exclude SpaceX could result in cumbersome political investigations if not reconsidered. While the HASC Chairman argued that delays to the program were in the best interest of America’s national security, the Air Force rightly recognized that politicking had no place in domestic security matters and transitioned the NSSL into its second phase.

Smith’s unwavering support for SpaceX, though, appears to be less about national security and more about money. After all, in numerous campaign cycles, SpaceX was one of the Chairman’s top political contributors. In 2018 alone, SpaceX contributed over $15,000 to Smith’s campaign—second only to Sen. Dianne Feinstein for the largest SpaceX candidate contributions. It would seem that even the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee isn’t immune to Washington’s “politics as usual.”

Smith’s recent SpaceX earmark, however, may cross the line from common political cajolery to outright cronyism. Given the Congressman’s history with the aerospace company, it’s almost impossible to see the legislation as anything else. Of the three company’s most likely to be selected for Phase 2 of the NSSL, only SpaceX would be gifted an additional half of a billion dollars if it were chosen. If instead, companies like Northrop Grumman and ULA were selected, neither firm would receive a dime.

The Chairman may claim that his addendum to the NDAA would create “fair and open competition,” but that doesn’t square with the obviously preferential status the bill would provide SpaceX. Indeed, Smith seems more interested in reimbursing SpaceX for the funds the company failed to secure in the NSSL’s first phase than he does establishing a truly even playing field.

Ultimately, Rep. Smith’s attempts to alter the Air Force’s NSSL program appear increasingly more like political favors than legitimate policy recommendations. The Chairman is once again covering for SpaceX, but this time, he is wasting taxpayer money to do it.

Jessie Jane Duff is a retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant, a freelance author, and a Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research.

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