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SpaceX's Musk slams USAF certification process

Jun. 10, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveils SpaceX's new seven-seat Dragon V2 spacecraft on May 9 in Hawthorne, Calif. (Robyn Beck / Getty Images)
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If SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had his way, the Air Force would certify his company for national security launches this minute — and he made his frustrations clear with the service’s long process of certifying his Falcon 9 rocket.

Speaking to press at an event in Washington meant to showcase SpaceX’s Dragon manned capsule, Musk alternated between disbelief and naked frustration when discussing the Air Force’s certification process.

“We just think the law of the land is competition,” Musk said. “There’s no legitimate reason why there shouldn’t be competition. So that should just happen.

“I don’t understand why we even have to fight for this. It should just be automatic.”

“I don’t understand what’s taking so long,” he continued. “The Falcon 9 obviously works. It’s not as though the Air Force is changing the design of the rocket. They’re really just learning about it. That’s what the certification process is. So I don’t understand why it should take so long to learn about the rocket. That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Musk’s comments stood as an emotional contrast — and repudiation, in some cases — of comments SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell made last week.

Shotwell’s comments were mostly focused on how her company is working through the certification process with the Air Force, striking a conciliatory note as she highlighted the heavy work the service has put into the process. In contrast, Musk hit the service hard, hinting that parts of the service were willingly slowing the certification process down to hurt his company.

Asked directly if he thought the Air Force was purposefully slowing down the certification process, Musk paused a full eight seconds before answering: “I think the jury’s out on this front. It doesn’t seem like it should take this long for experts in the launch business to understand how a rocket works, which is all the certification process is.”

Notably, Musk would not offer the same commitment and confidence Shotwell showed that the service would be done with certification by the end of the year.

“It’s difficult to say,” Musk said when asked whether he expected that December date, offered by both Shotwell and service officials, to be hit. “It’s not up to us. Certification simply amounts to educating the Air Force about the rocket. The design hasn’t changed. And obviously the rocket can put satellites in very complex orbits. Anyone can see that.”

The Silicon Valley star also defended his decision to sue the Air Force over a service decision to award a block-buy contract of launches to the Lockheed Martin/Boeing-backed United Launch Alliance.

“What other choice did we have?” he said.

When it was pointed out that the Air Force would be SpaceX’s largest customer, Musk quickly retorted: “Yeah, if they compete launches. What did we have to lose? I’m sure there’s a chance for a settlement. I don’t know there will be. We’ll see.”

That hasn’t won him any friends in the Pentagon. Speaking last month at the National Space Symposium, Gen. William Shelton, the head of Air Force Space Command, said his team was working every day on pushing certification through before expressing a lack of enthusiasm for Musk’s decision to sue the Air Force.

“Generally, the person you’re going to do business with you don’t sue,” Shelton noted.

But that may not bother Musk, who called out service acquisition officials as a roadblock to introducing competition into the national security launch market.

“Our opposition is not with the Air Force, broadly. I think that should be emphasized,” Musk said. “We have a very close relationship with the Air Force, broadly. There are a few people at the senior level which — I just don’t understand where their opposition is coming from to competition ... There’s a small number of people who are responsible for procurement decisions. We have an issue with them, not with the Air Force.”

Asked which people he meant, Musk paused, offered a small smile, and said: “I think it’s not that hard to figure out.”

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