The U.S. Air Force overstepped its bounds as it worked to certify privately held SpaceX to launch military satellites, undermining the benefit of working with a commercial provider, an independent review showed on Thursday.
The report cited a “stark disconnect” between the Air Force and SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies, about the purpose of the certification process and recommended changes.
Air Force Secretary Deborah James ordered the review after the service missed a December deadline for certifying SpaceX to compete for some launches now carried out solely by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co.
The Pentagon is eager to certify SpaceX as a second launch provider, given mounting concerns in Congress about ULA’s use of a Russian-built engine to power its Atlas 5 rocket.
The Air Force said on Monday it was revamping the certification process, but did not release the report on the review until Thursday and hoped to complete the work by June.
The report, prepared by former Air Force Chief of Staff General Larry Welch, said the Air Force treated the process like a detailed design review, dictating changes in SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and even the company’s organizational structure.
That approach resulted in over 400 issues that needed to be resolved, which was “counterproductive” to a national policy aimed at encouraging competition in the sector.
In fact, the process was intended to show that SpaceX met overall requirements to launch military satellites, not carry out the more detailed review required for each launch on a case-by-case basis, he said.
Welch faulted SpaceX for assuming its experience launching other Falcon 9 rockets would suffice to be certified, and not expecting to have to resolve any issues at all.
“The result to date has been … the worst of all worlds, pressing the Falcon 9 commercially oriented approach into a comfortable government mold that eliminates or significantly reduces the expected benefits to the government of the commercial approach. Both teams need to adjust,” he said.
He urged the Air Force’s Space and Missiles Systems Center to “embrace SpaceX innovation and practices,” while SpaceX needed to understand the Air Force’s need to mitigate risks, and be more open to benefiting from the government’s experience.