WASHINGTON – U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten twice implicated the media in a recent speech lamenting the U.S. government’s decades-long retreat from risk taking in space and missile development programs.
Speaking June 20 at the Mitchell Institute here, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command and former commander of Air Force Space Command was careful to assign responsibility for the glacial pace of acquisition programs to “all of us” involved in the process. But he also suggested that the specter of negative press coverage can suppress a manager’s appetite for risk.
“We tie the hands of our engineers and acquisition folk because we expect every test to work and if it doesn’t work it’s on the front page of the newspaper: ‘Missile defense system fails,’” Hyten said. “No, that’s a test. We have got to get back to where we accept risk.”
Hyten certainly isn’t alone in his assessment that caution can be the enemy of progress, or in citing the heady 1960s as a time when empowered program managers accomplished great things on schedules and at costs that don’t seem possible today. “We’ve lost the ability to go fast and fail,” he said.
There’s truth in that statement, and yes, when failures do occur, the media pounce. But there was a bit of context missing from the general’s remarks.
During the 1960s, space was novel; the U.S. Department of Defense wasn’t saddled with today’s expectations and probably didn’t fully understand some of the risks it was taking. Perhaps more importantly, the military at that time was still a decade or more away from any level of dependence on space, never mind today’s level of dependency, and so was, in effect, gambling with house money. Finally, the ‘60s being the height of the Cold War, the Pentagon brass were motivated by a prospect far more frightening than any test failure: ceding the new high ground to the Soviets.
Hyten said the program management audacity of yesteryear can still be found in places like the intelligence community’s rapid acquisition programs and in private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, both of which have experienced failures of late.
But here too, the media loom.
“It really upsets me when I see headlines come out in the newspaper after the Blue Origin failure the other day: ‘Blue Origin takes huge step back, big failure!’ I’m going, ‘no, they’re pushing the envelope…’”
His frustration is understandable, but only to an extent. Again, the context is missing.
The failure in question involved a key component of Blue Origin’s BE-4, a liquid natural gas-fueled engine that happens to be the leading candidate to power United Launch Alliance’s planned Vulcan rocket. ULA is the primary launch services provider to the DoD, and, notwithstanding SpaceX’s recent success in that market, is entrusted with the highest-value national security payloads, some costing north of $1 billion.
But ULA’s existing rockets are slated for replacement sometime next decade by at least two new vehicle families to be selected in a competition scheduled to get underway this year. By all indications, Vulcan is ULA’s entry.
The Air Force plans during the current fiscal year to select up to three companies for an initial round of development funding, and it would be an absolute shock for ULA, the only prospective bidder with a significant track record in national security launches, to be left out. But before investing hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars in Vulcan, the Air Force ought to know what it’s getting, and right now it does not have that information.
That’s because ULA, despite its stated preference for the BE-4, is also considering the AR1, under development by Aerojet Rocketdyne. The AR1 appears to be the more expensive of the two, and that could have implications for Vulcan’s overall competitiveness, which is supposed to be a factor in the Air Force’s selection process.
But if past performance and experience count, Aerojet Rocketdyne has the upper hand. Blue Origin has never developed an engine the size of the BE-4 and is working with a fuel that hasn’t been used on a major U.S. rocket; Aerojet Rocketdyne has been doing this for more than 50 years.
ULA previously planned to make its engine selection in 2016; in April, the company’s chief executive wouldn’t specify a date, an indication that the BE-4 development effort was behind schedule. The BE-4 component failure, disclosed in May, raised fresh schedule doubts.
So yes, that mishap was big news, and the media had every reason – indeed a responsibility – to report it as such.
Hyten’s main point about the government’s unhealthy aversion to risk remains valid, of course, and his speech, which got plenty of ink in the trade press, clearly was a call to action. In delivering that message he received an incidental assist from the same media that, in the course of doing their job, occasionally must report news that upsets him.