Congress’s demand to cease using Russian engines may leave the military dependent on unproven rockets.
The explosion of an unmanned SpaceX rocket after liftoff at Cape Canaveral in Florida on Sunday was a graphic reminder of why U.S. national space policy requires that there betwo independent means of launching satellites for national-security missions: in case one launch system fails.
SpaceX, headed by Elon Musk, is contracted to resupply the International Space Station. Critics who are unhappy about the use of Russian rocket engines for national-security launches have campaigned to get SpaceX involved in those missions. But the failure of its Falcon 9 version 1.1 rocket should give everyone pause about jettisoning a dependable arrangement vital to U.S. security.
Current U.S. space policy is implemented by buying both the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets from the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Both rockets have a 100% success record—83 launches without failure.
Yet Congress is on the verge of passing legislation—the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act—that will put U.S. space policy at considerable risk.