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Senate shenanigans threaten Alabama rocket maker

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

As the Senate prepares to take up the nation’s annual military authorization bill, a small and highly unusual provision could spell trouble for Alabama-based rocket maker United Launch Alliance.

United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, employs more than 600 people in Decatur, where its primary manufacturing and assembly operations are located.

The Senate is scheduled as soon as this week to debate and vote on the National Defense Authorization Act, which sets policy and authorizes defense spending levels for the Pentagon. One provision tucked deep in a committee draft of the bill would prohibit Mike Griffin, the Pentagon’s chief space technician, from having a say in Department of Defense space policy.

The move is the latest salvo in a years-long dispute between newcomer rocket companies SpaceX and Blue Origin and the nation’s go-to launcher, ULA. Griffin held the top position at NASA from 2005 to 2009 and is thought to prefer ULA’s proven track record in space launch over alternatives that might cost less, but could also come with greater risk.

Sen. John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and is a long-time SpaceX supporter, has previously attempted to insert language favoring Elon Musk’s company over ULA. Those attempts were swiftly killed by Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby the U.S. Air Force, and other ULA supporters in Congress.

This year, with McCain in Arizona receiving treatment for brain cancer, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inohfe has been taking the lead on NDAA negotiations. However, McCain’s staffers remain in place and appear have to again found a way to tip the scales toward SpaceX in a draft NDAA bill, according to Capitol Hill sources familiar with the process.

Removing Griffin from having a say into space matters at the Pentagon could make way for John H. “Jay” Gibson II, who is the Chief Management Officer of the Department of Defense. Gibson is a Boeing-Lockheed Martin critic, who blamed the demise of his former company (Xcor) on ULA because they didn’t select Xcor for an engine development contract.

The Wall Street Journal’s Andy Pasztor picked up on the move as well, and reported the following in a news brief:

Buried in the text of a Senate Pentagon authorization bill is a potentially wide-ranging provision that, in effect, favors commercial rocket-makers SpaceX and Blue Origin at the expense of incumbent United Launch Services. ULA, a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin confronting escalating competition, has been betting on getting some help from Mike Griffin, the Defense Department’s new head of research and engineering. A former NASA chief, the DOD under secretary has a history of staunchly supporting dedicated Pentagon launchers(ULA AL) versus commercially-focused SpaceX and Blue Origin rockets. But the Senate measure strips Griffin of decision-making authority over next-generation military rockets being developed by all three companies.

The anti-Griffin, anti-ULA provision could become a point of contention as the Senate debates the bill or when the House and Senate work out the differences between their two bills in a conference committee.

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