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Richard D.
Democrat IL

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  • Competitive Space Launch

    by Senator Richard J. Durbin

    Posted on 2015-12-16

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    DURBIN. Mr. President, the senior Senator from Arizona came to the floor this morning and raised a question about a provision in the Omnibus appropriations bill, particularly the aspect of it that related to the Department of Defense. During the course of raising the issue, the senior Senator from Arizona used my name on the floor repeatedly. It was refreshing and I am relieved. The senior Senator from Arizona has not attacked me on the floor for 3 weeks, and I was fearful he was feeling under the weather, but clearly he is in fine form and feels good, and I welcome him back to the floor for another attack on me personally.

    Let's talk about the issue he raised because it is complicated but extremely important when it comes to the defense of the United States. Here is what it boils down to: In the early 2000s, there were two companies making rockets that launched satellites. The two companies were Boeing and Lockheed, and they competed with one another, but in the early 2000s--and I don't understand why--they made an argument to the Department of Defense that the Nation would be better off if they merged the two companies into one company and then provided the rockets to launch satellites to defend the United States and collect information. They argued that if they worked together, it would cost less, and they merged. With the approval of the Department of Defense, they continued to bid on satellite launches.

    What happened was a good thing and a thing that was not so good. What was good was that their product was very reliable. They launched satellites with great reliability, and that is of course what America and its national defense requires. The bad part is that the costs went through the roof. The costs went up about 65 percent over this period of time since they created United Launch Alliance, costing the Federal taxpayers about $3 billion more for launches than it did in the past. They argued that they would eliminate competition and provide reliability, and they did, but the costs went up dramatically.

    A new player arrived on the scene--SpaceX. SpaceX is associated with Elon Musk, a name that is well known in America. They decided to get into the business. They were going to build rockets and launch satellites too. Naturally, the United States of America said: Be my guest but prove you can do it in a way that we can count on you, because when we need a satellite launched to collect information, we want to make sure it is successful.

    Over the years, SpaceX improved, evolved, and developed the capacity to launch satellites to the point where NASA, for example--the National Aeronautics and Space Administration--used SpaceX rockets successfully. It reached a point where the Department of Defense said to SpaceX: You are capable and will be certified to now compete for Department of Defense business. It is to the credit of SpaceX that they reached that point.

    I thought this was an exciting development because, once again, we were going to have competition between the United Launch Alliance, the old Boeing-Lockheed merger, and SpaceX, the [[Page S8700]] new company. The owner of SpaceX said to me as well as publicly: We can do this for a fraction of the cost to American taxpayers. What I did was invite the CEOs of both companies to come to my subcommittee--when I then chaired the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee--in March of 2014. No one had quite seen a hearing like this before. We put the CEOs of both companies at the table at the same time, and we asked them questions about their operations, reliability, costs, and projections for the future.

    At the end of this hearing, I said to the CEOs of each of these companies: I want to do something that is a little unusual. I want to offer each of you the opportunity, if you wish, to submit 10 questions to the other CEO that you think should have been asked and perhaps we didn't--and so they did. It was a complete record and a good one. For the first time, it really showed me that we were moving to a new stage in rocket science and capacity that could serve the United States by keeping us safe and keeping the costs down, and that of course should be our goal.

    Then there was a complication. Vladimir Putin of Russia decided to take aggressive action by invading Georgia and Ukraine, and other actions by him that we considered confrontational tended to freeze up the relationship between the United States and Russia. Why is that important? It is important because the engine being used by United Launch Alliance to launch America's defense satellites was an engine built in Russia.

    People started saying: Why in the world are we giving Russia and Vladimir Putin the opportunity to sell rocket engines to the United States? Secondly, why would we want to be dependent on Russia for rocket engines? So the debate started moving forward. How do we exclude the Russians from building engines and still have competition between these two companies? That is what brings me here today.

    We were trying to find the right combination to bring competition and reliability without engaging the Russians. Everyone in Congress knows we have authorizing committees and appropriations committees. The senior Senator from Arizona is the chair of the defense authorizing committee, the Armed Services Committee, and I have been chair and am now the vice chair of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

    The senior Senator from Arizona started including provisions in the authorizing bill which said that ULA, United Launch Alliance, could not use Russian engines to launch satellites and compete for business using those engines in the United States. As a result, the Air Force came to see me. First, I might add, a letter was sent when this provision was added to the Defense authorization bill. The letter was sent in May of this year, signed by Ash Carter, the Secretary of Defense, and James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, suggesting that excluding Russian engines so quickly could cause a problem in terms of the availability of missiles to launch satellites as we need them. The limitation that was put in by the defense authorization committee as to the number of engines that could be used would be quickly depleted, and the Air Force, the Department of Defense, and our intelligence agency said that may leave us vulnerable, so they asked the Senator from Arizona to reconsider that provision. He did not. If anything, the language that came out of conference on this provision made it even more difficult for the United Launch Alliance to consider using a different type of engine. I might add, they don't have an alternative engine to the Russian engine. United Launch Alliance uses it now. We told them to develop an American engine, and I stand behind that. They told us it will take anywhere from 5 to 7 years for that to happen.

    I understand this is a complex assignment, and we want them to get it right. It seems like a long time, but it points to the dilemma we face. If United Launch Alliance cannot bid for work with the Department of Defense using a Russian engine, they don't have an alternative engine to bid with. At that point, SpaceX becomes the sole bidder and the monopoly source for engines. We tried to move from ULA as a monopoly source or sole bidder to competition, and now by injecting this prohibition against Russian engines beyond a certain number, we are again getting back to the days of a sole bidder.

    What we have allowed in this Omnibus appropriations bill is language which gives 1 year of flexibility to the Department of Defense when it comes to bidding for these satellite launches, and of course it means United Launch Alliance will be using Russian engines for that bidding.

    The Senator from Arizona came to the floor and spent most of his time talking about the aggression of Russia and Vladimir Putin and how we need to be strong with our response. Back in the day, when our relationship was more constructive, the Senator from Arizona and I actually traveled to Ukraine. I agree with him about the aggression of Russia and Mr. Putin and why the United States needs to be strong in response, but we have to be careful that we don't cut off our nose to spite our face. If we reach a point where we don't allow ULA to use a Russian engine to compete, we could endanger and jeopardize the opportunities the United States needs to keep us safe, and that is exactly what the Secretary of Defense and Mr. Clapper said in writing to Senator McCain.

    My message is that there is nothing, incidentally, in this omnibus bill that was not discussed in the original bill as marked up. There is no airdrop of language. It is a slightly different version of the language but says the same thing--that we think there should be some flexibility as ULA moves to develop their new engine.

    The Department of Defense has convinced me that it would be shortsighted of us to make it impossible for ULA to even bid on future satellite launches. God forbid something happens to SpaceX where they can't launch satellites. At that point then, we would be in a terrible situation. We wouldn't be able to keep our country safe when we should. None of us wants that to happen.

    The provision in the omnibus bill gives 1 year for the Department of Defense and the Air Force to continue to work with ULA to have a launch and have competitive bidding. If SpaceX performs as promised and comes in with a lower bid for those launches, they deserve to win, and they will. In the meantime, we want to make sure we have the availability of sourcing beyond just one company--beyond SpaceX.

    I am impressed with all of these companies. The Senator from Arizona raised the point that Boeing has its headquarters in my home State, and I am very proud of that. I have worked with them in the past. I think it is an excellent company and does great work. My initial premise in starting this conversation in the Appropriations subcommittee was that we should have competition, and Boeing should face competition. The insertion of the Russian engine issue has made this more complex, and it will take us some time to reach what should be our ultimate goal: quality and reliable engines in these rockets to launch satellites to keep America safe and the certainty that if one company fails to be able to meet our defense needs, there is an alternative supplier. That, to me, is the best outcome possible.

    This section 8045 of the Department of Defense appropriations is critical to our national security and launching satellites into space. We have to assure the Department of Defense and our intelligence agencies that we can put critical satellites into orbit when we need it. We have to make certain that the costs of these launches is competitive so taxpayers end up getting the best outcome for the dollars they put into our national defense. We have to generate competition to drive down costs, and we have to bring to an end our reliance on Russian-manufactured rocket engines. I wish that were not the case. I wish our relationship with Russia was positive in every aspect, but it is not, and I join with virtually all of my colleagues in believing that the sooner we move away from Russian-made engines to American-made engines in competition, the better for us and the better for our Nation.

    There is no doubt that our Omnibus appropriations bill recognizes the need to end our reliance on Russian engines, and we actually put our money where our mouth is. We added $143.6 million on top of the $84.4 million requested by the President to accelerate the development of a new rocket engine. This amount is $43.6 million more than the [[Page S8701]] $100 million authorized by the defense authorization committee, so we are making certain we are going to end this reliance on Russian engines. The question is how we manage the space launch through the several years of launches before we have that engine. We need to do it without jeopardizing our national security.

    The general provision I referred to allows for space launch competition in 2016 without regard to the source of an engine. It will permit real competition on four missions in 2016, and it will avoid trading one monopoly for another. I think I have explained how we have reached this point.

    I think there is good faith on both sides. I don't question the motives of the senior Senator from Arizona. I hope he doesn't question mine. What we need to make certain of is that we move toward a day when America is safe and that the money spent by taxpayers is well spent.

    I yield the floor.

    I suggest the absence of a quorum.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.

    The senior assistant legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.

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