SpaceX Drops Lawsuit Against Air Force

SpaceX Drops Lawsuit Against Air Force

SpaceX announced today that it reached agreement with the Air Force on a “path forward” and is dropping its lawsuit against a 2013 Air Force contract with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for a “block-buy” of 36 launch vehicle cores for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. 

SpaceX filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in April 2014 arguing that the 2013 contract should not have been awarded on a sole-source basis, but opened for bid.  The company’s founder and Chief Designer, Elon Musk, said at the time that ULA’s prices for launching the two EELVs — Atlas V and Delta IV — were “four times as expensive” as a SpaceX launch and the award was “not right.”  

SpaceX has been awarded a few Air Force launch contracts (such as the DSCOVR launch now scheduled for February 8), but not for the potentially more lucrative launches of national security satellites by EELV-class rockets.  It is still awaiting certification from the Air Force to be able to compete for those launches.  Air Force officials indicated last year that certification was expected by the end of 2014, but most recently said it may not come until this summer.

The company said in statement today that its agreement with the Air Force “improves the competitive landscape and achieves mission assurance for national security space launches.”   The agreement calls for the Air Force to “work collaboratively” with SpaceX to complete the certification process,   The SpaceX statement also said that the Air Force “has expanded the number of competitive opportunities for launch services under the EELV program while honoring existing contractual obligations.”

“Per the settlement, SpaceX will dismiss its claims relating to the EELV block buy contract pending in the United States Court of Federal Claims,” the SpaceX statement concludes.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is a strong supporter of SpaceX’s efforts to win EELV contracts.  At a Senate hearing last summer, he left no doubt about his dissatisfaction with the Air Force’s handling of the EELV block-buy award and its treatment of SpaceX.  He is now the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), which oversees the Air Force.

SpaceX’s complaint against the ULA contract came at the same time U.S.-Russian geopolitical relationships soured because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.  It highlighted ULA’s  utilization of Russian RD-180 rocket engines for the Atlas V rocket and catalyzed a debate about U.S. dependence on Russian rocket engines.  The FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) essentially prohibits DOD from entering into a new contract or renewing a current contract for purchasing Russian rocket engines for national security space launches.  The law authorizes $220 million in FY2015 for the Air Force to develop a “next generation”  rocket propulsion system by 2019.   Meanwhile, ULA and Blue Origin announced last fall that they are teaming to develop a new U.S.-produced engine for the Atlas V that is already completely funded (i.e., no government funds are required).

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