SpaceX Files Protest of Air Force EELV Contract, Continues Criticism of Atlas V Russian Engines – UPDATE

SpaceX Files Protest of Air Force EELV Contract, Continues Criticism of Atlas V Russian Engines – UPDATE

SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk announced today, April 25, that he is filing suit against the Air Force for the contract it awarded to United Launch Alliance (ULA) in December 2013 for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) launches over the next five years.  The two EELVs are Delta IV and Atlas V and, in addition to announcing the lawsuit, continued his criticism of the Atlas V because it uses Russian RD-180 engines.

Musk wants to compete against ULA for national security space launches that could be launched using his Falcon rockets — the existing Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy now in development.  He said the block buy contract for 36 EELV cores awarded on a sole source, non-competed basis is “not right.”   He argued that SpaceX rockets are good enough for NASA and the commercial satellite sector, so why would they not be good enough for launching something “as simple as a GPS satellite.” 

“The ULA rockets are four times as expensive as ours,” he asserted, and therefore the contract is costing U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars more than necessary.

In a press release distributed at the National Press Club event, SpaceX calculates that the average cost of a ULA launch is $460 million based on figures publicly available in budget documentation presented to Congress by the Department of Defense (DOD).  By comparison, Musk says that the launch of a Falcon 9 would be about $90 million for the Air Force; about 30 percent higher than the $60 million price to a commercial customer because of “mission assurance” requirements imposed by the Air Force.  The commercial price for a Falcon Heavy launch is $135 million, the press release states.

It is impossible to compare those prices to launches conducted for the Air Force by ULA because DOD does not account for ULA costs in a compatible manner, a point that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has criticized for several years.  It recently reported that DOD is improving its visibility into the ULA costs, but a per-launch cost or price is not available.  One can only look at how much money is requested for EELV launches and divide by the number of launches that year to obtain an average.

Musk also continued to press the case, as he did at a March hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, that the United States should not be using the Atlas V rocket because it relies on Russian-built RD-180 engines.  He went so far as to suggest that paying Russia for the engines might violate sanctions imposed by the United States against Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Rogozin is in charge of Russia’s space sector and one of several top Russian officials sanctioned by President Obama after Russia annexed Crimea.  “It is hard to imagine that Rogozin is not benefitting personally” from the engine sales, Musk stated.

Musk said SpaceX concluded the lawsuit was “the only option” to bring these matters into the light:  “Let the sun shine on this. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” 

He also said that the protest is not specifically intended to get launches awarded to SpaceX:  “If we compete and lose, that’s fine, but why wouldn’t they even compete it?”

Musk was asked why he waited so long to file suit, since the EELV contract was awarded in December.   He replied that although it was awarded in December, he did not know about it until March, specifically the day after the March Senate Appropriations Committee hearing.  He said he did not think it was “an accident” that it only became public at that time.

The contract award was posted on the FedBizOpps website on December 19, 2013, however, and written up in trade publications soon thereafter.  SpaceX has not replied to an email requesting clarification on what it was that the company did not know until March.

The day after the Senate hearing DOD officials did reveal in a budget briefing that the number of launches it is setting aside specifically for “new entrants” like SpaceX would be fewer than earlier planned over the next few years.  Those launches are in addition to the 36 launches in the December contract, however.

Late on April 25 SpaceX issued another press release summarizing its position and stating that it will formally file the lawsuit on Monday, April 28.  

NOTE:  This article was updated on April 26, 2014 with the additional information about the new press release and about a new website SpaceX said it was creating,, where it would post the lawsuit would at noon EDT April 28.  This article was updated again on April 28 to remove the clause about the new website.  The lawsuit is not posted there and instead of a countdown clock indicating when the website will be launched, there is simply a notice that it will be “launching soon.”

NOTE 2:  As of May 5, the website has made no changes despite the fact that the judge in the case has issued two rulings already.   That website clearly is not a good source of any information other than a link to the SpaceX press release.

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