Three-time presidential candidate Ron Paul has written an opinion piece for Fox News that comes out swinging against SpaceX, accusing the company of benefiting from potentially having a monopoly on national security launches. The article also attacks US Sen. John McCain as a “lead sponsor” of provisions to give SpaceX a monopoly on launch services.
“Allowing SpaceX to obtain a monopoly over launch services harms taxpayers much more than forbidding the Pentagon from purchasing Russian products harms Vladimir Putin,” Paul writes. “If this provision becomes law, SpaceX will be able to charge the government more than they could in even a quasi-competitive market. This monopoly will also stifle innovation in rocket launching technology.”
Paul correctly notes that SpaceX has enjoyed substantial support from NASA, but, in return, the company has provided services at a significantly lower cost for the space agency. However, the irony of his “monopoly” argument is that it was SpaceX, and its Falcon 9 rocket, that brought competition into the Air Force launch services agreements. Before SpaceX was certified two years ago to compete for national security launch contracts, United Launch Alliance was the sole provider of these services for a decade. SpaceX has since provided launches at a large discount for the military.
In recent years, McCain and other senators have been pushing the Air Force and United Launch Alliance to develop an alternative launch vehicle to its workhorse Atlas V rocket, which relies on Russian-made RD-180 engines for lift. Paul asserts that the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018 represents “cronyism” for SpaceX because it “expressly forbids the Air Force from developing new launch vehicles by restricting expenditures to the development of new engines or the modification of existing systems.”
How the Air Force feels
The reality, according to Air Force officials, is that they don’t want to be saddled with the entire cost of building a new launch system to replace the Atlas V. This funding mechanism allows for United Launch Alliance to solicit engines from both Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne for its next-generation Vulcan launch vehicle. The authorization act Paul is lambasting as crony capitalism, therefore, is providing funding to United Launch Alliance to build a rocket that can compete with SpaceX on price.
Although Paul said Pentagon brass are concerned about the provision and its benefits for SpaceX, top Air Force officials have recently been complimentary of the rocket company founded by Elon Musk. “There are some very exciting things happening in commercial space that bring the opportunity for assured access to space at a very competitive price,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson testified in June, in reference to SpaceX. Gen. John Hyten, the head of US Strategic Command, also recently praised SpaceX’s approach.
It is not clear why Paul has chosen to weigh in on a complicated space policy matter such as the National Defense Authorization Act, but some clues may explain his hostility. Paul has not run for office since 2012, but at the time, two of his top six corporate donors were Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the parent companies of United Launch Alliance.
Paul also has been sympathetic to Russia in recent years, and SpaceX’s low-cost approach to launch threatens to take considerable market share away from Russian firms. For example, this year the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity has suggested the investigation into Russian meddling in US elections is a “farce” and said hostile efforts by US policymakers to sanction Russia were “irrational.”