SpaceX sues US Air Force over satellite contracts (Update)

April 25, 2014 by Kerry Sheridan
CEO and chief designer of SpaceX Elon Musk in Washington, DC, on April 25, 2014

SpaceX on Friday filed suit against the US Air Force for awarding billions of dollars to a single company for national security launches, and said the contracts might even violate sanctions against Russia.

The US military spends billions yearly with United Launch Alliance, a joint operation of aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to launch government satellites.

The Atlas V and Delta IV rockets are powered by Russian engines, which has raised concern among some lawmakers that such reliance is dangerous in a time of escalating tensions over Ukraine.

"This is not right," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told reporters, describing the policy of "uncompeted procurement" by the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.

"SpaceX has decided to file suit and protest the Air Force EELV block buy," Musk said.

The process "essentially blocks companies like SpaceX from competing for national security launches," said Musk at a press conference in the US capital.

The suit was filed in the US Court of Federal Claims, he added.

Musk said ULA rockets cost four times the amount of SpaceX's.

"To add insult to the wound, the primary engine is made in Russia," said Musk.

The SpaceX Dragon cargo craft is pictured just prior to being released by the International Space Station's Canadarm2 robotic arm on May 31 to allow it to head toward a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: NASA

"The person who heads Russian space activities is (deputy prime minister) Dmitry Rogozin, who is on the sanctions list. So it seems pretty strange, like, you know, how is it that we are sending hundreds of millions of US taxpayer money at a time when Russia is in the process of invading Ukraine?" Musk asked.

"It would be hard to imagine some way in which Dmitry Rogozin is not benefiting personally from the dollars that are being sent there," he added.

"On the surface of it is seems there is a good probability of some sanctions violation."

An Internet entrepreneur who co-founded PayPal, Musk has gained a high profile in the business world with SpaceX and his electric car company, Tesla.

In 2012, SpaceX's Dragon capsule became the first unmanned spaceship made by a private US company to reach the International Space Station. A version that could carry crew is expected by 2017.

"This is not SpaceX protesting and saying these launches should be awarded to us. We are just protesting and saying these launches should be competed," Musk said.

"If we compete and lose that's fine."

His California-based firm is also working on a novel rocket, called the Falcon 9 reusable, that could return to Earth from a space launch intact and be used again and again for space launches.

The latest test of the rocket showed it was able to land upright with all legs deployed, but SpaceX was unable to retrieve it intact from its ocean landing, due to stormy seas and lack of access to a big enough boat, he said.

Still, Musk said he hoped the next ocean test landing would go more smoothly, since it would splash down closer to land.

If that goes well, he said he was "optimistic" that the reusable rocket's first land-test return could happen at Florida's Cape Canaveral later this year.

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4.4 / 5 (7) Apr 25, 2014
SpaceX didn't bribe the right people I guess.
4.6 / 5 (5) Apr 25, 2014
SpaceX didn't bribe the right people I guess.

Hey, they're new to dealing with the government...they'll learn....
5 / 5 (3) Apr 25, 2014
it's rare that I hope my guess is wrong:

I'm guessing that due to the sensitive nature of the typical payload and the NSA's recent experience with private contractors, SpaceX may lack both the necessary clearance and the need to know. Hopefully not. But peaceful ventures are better in the long run, whence the mind always beats the sword (according to Napoleon, anyway).
5 / 5 (1) Apr 26, 2014
It should be open to competition....but are they any competitors ready for such loads ?
Lex Talonis
1.4 / 5 (9) Apr 26, 2014
Elon Musk is a pathological "patriot" style liar.

The Russians have better engines - power to weight, thrust etc., than the Americans. Like 25% more thrust...

Toss in the Americans crowding in the Russians, toe to toe deployments with the pricks in NATO, up to their door steps, including destabilising the Ukraine with another USA style regieme change (as the Americans so often force), and Elon Musk, accuses the Russians - not of defending their borders, but of invading the Ukraine.

He was always an incompetent lying arsehole - Paypal has been one of the most corrupt payment systems ever invented, and this prick ran it that way.

The lying is just continuing.

I hope someone shoots this thief.
5 / 5 (5) Apr 26, 2014
That will be interesting to watch. Might be one of the (more obvious) proofs that being a nation is all about siphoning tax money to no-bidder contract pals (or how else would you explain the ludicrous defense budget in the US? It can't be because of any threat, because there isn't one)
1 / 5 (2) Apr 26, 2014

4.7 / 5 (13) Apr 26, 2014
Lex - Speaking of liars, you have grossly misstated the "facts". The SpaceX Merlin 1D engine has a thrust to weight ratio of twice that of ULA's RD-180. You are obviously ignorant of the physics involved and chosen instead to focus on your petty misinformed grudge againt Elon Musk, a truly revolutionary and forward thinking individual. He has only asked that SpaceX be allowed to compete in the launches that are a quarter to one third the cost of those offered by the bloated and inefficient ULA consortium.
5 / 5 (1) Apr 26, 2014
That will be interesting to watch. Might be one of the (more obvious) proofs that being a nation is all about siphoning tax money to no-bidder contract pals (or how else would you explain the ludicrous defense budget in the US? It can't be because of any threat, because there isn't one)

Great point. Looking at empires of the past, there are 3 basic stages in the rise and fall:
1) There is a vibrant economy
2) The empire is discontent and seeks to control the economy militarily
3) Imperial overreach—the military corrupts both the economy and the spirit of the people to the point there is bickering and conflict everywhere

Here's a short video (13:30) of Dr. Michio Kaku explaining it, along with good quotes to support the notion the U.S. is currently at stage 3: http://www.youtub...T3i5VGN8

Kaku points out "Peace through strength" is wrong. It should be "Strength through peace". Examples are also given showing the greatest power of all is the will of the people.
5 / 5 (4) Apr 26, 2014
Wow Lex, catch much with the troll bait?

Successful business men are always going to have personalities where they don't take BS laying down. Part of the genius of America is that we have structure for calling BS and dragging dirty laundry out into the open to air. Sometimes that process isn't very smooth or easy, but thank God strong willed people are able to brave it.
5 / 5 (1) Apr 26, 2014
SpaceX Press Conference at the National Press Club - Apr. 25, 2014
for all the fan boys
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (1) Apr 27, 2014
I'm guessing that due to the sensitive nature of the typical payload and the NSA's recent experience with private contractors, SpaceX may lack both the necessary clearance and the need to know
IMHO - There may be a great deal more truth to this than you imagine, and I personally think it has a LOT to do with it.
The contracted U.S. Air Farce Space Shuttle Rescue Team firefighters ALL had to maintain a secret clearance. Certain others had to have a Top Secret Clearance

NASA most likely would require them to maintain secret clearances at the minimum... higher for some.

5 / 5 (2) Apr 27, 2014
@Cap'n Stumpy – yer a bit vowel-challenged, huh? :)

An aerospace stress analyst's look at Why Are Launch Costs So High? addresses the following 'candidate explanations':
1. "It just does!"
2. Propellant costs.
3. "Energy costs."
4. Lack of reusability.
5. Lack of full reusability.
6. Conflicting vehicle requirements.
7. Learning curve; not enough generations of launch vehicles built.
8. Lack of adequate investment (solid boosters for Shuttle).
9. Politics I: Parasite control.
10. Politics II: Obstructionism.
11. Lack of technology I: Dry weight too high.
12. Lack of technology II: "Complexity" of multiple stages (need SSTO).
13. Living on the edge.
14. "Ground handling and launch operations" (need "ship and shoot" payloads).
15. Lack of intact abort capability.
16. Critical differences between rockets and airplanes (e.g. thermal problems).
17. Lack of a clear sense of direction.
18. Economies of scale.
19. Irrationality.
5 / 5 (4) Apr 27, 2014

Rocket science is compounded by economic pseudoscience. Thanks to John92 for posting the link to the press conference. Congrats to SpaceX on the soft-land, it looks like Musk is aware of the additional challenges and the suit makes sense, especially if it significantly reduces costs for the taxpayers. I wish them, and everyone much success in that regard.
5 / 5 (1) Apr 27, 2014
Getting secret clearances for specific SpaceX employees associated with DoD payloads should not be a big problem. Got one quickly as a very junior engineer just graduating from college.

SpaceX was late to the game with their newer F9 not having the required # of successful flights at contract award time. As a US taxpayer I'd love to see the competition re-opened, but I'm not a lawyer. ULA's $380M launch cost is screwing the taxpayer.

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