Another Shoe Drops in SpaceX-Air Force/ULA Dispute

Another Shoe Drops in SpaceX-Air Force/ULA Dispute

SpaceX’s already heated debate with the Air Force (AF) and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) over the sole-source contract awarded to ULA in December 2013 ratcheted up another notch today.  SpaceX founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk implied in a series of tweets that the recent employment of an Air Force procurement official by Aerojet Rocketdyne was in exchange for that official awarding the contract to ULA.

The National Legal and Policy Center reported on May 18 that Roger “Scott” Correll, a recently retired Air Force procurement official involved in the ULA contract, has taken a job with Aerojet Rocketdyne, which provides rocket engines for one of ULA’s two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs), the Delta IV.   (The other EELV, Atlas V, is under scrutiny for unrelated reasons associated with the fact that its RD-180 engines are supplied by Russia.)

SpaceX filed suit against the U.S. Government earlier this month on the basis that the contract should have been competed rather than awarded on a sole source basis.  Musk said via Twitter (@elonmusk) this evening that it was “V likely AF official Correll was told by ULA/Rocketdyne that a rich VP job was his if he gave them a sole source contract.”  In a separate tweet, Musk says “Reason I believe this is likely is that Correll first tried to work at SpaceX, but we turned him down.  Our competitor, it seems, did not.”  In a third tweet, Musk says that the issue deserves examination by the DOD Inspector General as part of an investigation already requested by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

Musk is trying to break into the national security space launch market.  SpaceX already conducts launches of its Falcon 9 rocket for NASA and for the commercial satellite industry.  The first step in getting Falcon 9 certified by the Air Force to compete as a “new entrant” in the national security space launch services business is to successfully complete three launches of the same version of the Falcon 9 rocket it intends to use for the Air Force. 

Those launches have been completed, but SpaceX and the Air Force disagree on how promptly the certification process is proceeding.   Air Force Space Command Commander Gen. William Shelton said at the Space Foundation’s Space Symposium in Colorado earlier this week that the Air Force has accepted the first launch, but is still analyzing the other two and in any case the three launches are “just openers.”  The Air Force also wants to make sure that SpaceX’s manufacturing and engineering processes “are right” and that it has “an auditable financial system.”  Overall, he argued, it takes time, money and people to complete the certification process and the Air Force is spending $60 million and has 100 people working on it, but SpaceX “cannot compete, will not compete, until they are certified.”

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