Back in March, GFR reported on SpaceX’s plans to conduct missions for the U.S. military. The private contractor has been racking up the necessary certifications to use its Falcon rockets to launch government satellites, positioning them to start competing for contracts starting next year. But even then, there has been skepticism about SpaceX’s plans, not because of lack of ability, but because the Air Force halved the number of launches it will award to competitors between 2015-2017. So far, they have awarded high-priority contracts to a single company: United Launch Alliance (ULA). Elon Musk and his company perceive this to be a monopoly, and are suing the U.S. Government.
Tomorrow, the suit will be filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and an official press release and documentation will be made public at www.freedomtolaunch.com. Musk argues that the ULA’s monopoly of Air Force launches will result in unnecessarily penalizing taxpayers to the tune of billions of dollars. “The national security launches should be put up for competition and they should not be awarded on a sole source, uncompeted basis,” he says. Last December, ULA secured a contract to sell 36 rocket cores to the Air Force for future endeavors. The “block buy” purchase is like buying in bulk and receiving a discount, while simultaneously denying other companies the ability to compete. The Air Force planned to award 14 more cores to other companie, but half of those, as mentioned, have been deferred.
ULA was formed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin back in 2006, and has launched over 80 satellites, many of them as part of high-profile NASA missions. The company produces the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, which are now known as Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs), and they’re the only devices currently certified to launch military satellites. But Musk hopes to change all that with the Falcon 9, which he argues is significantly cheaper than ULA’s boosters. It costs about $400 million to launch a ULA rocket, but only $100 million to launch the Falcon 9. It has had 9 successful launches, 3 of which under a NASA contract to deliver payloads to the ISS. 4 of those met the requirements of the Air Force.
Musk doesn’t want special treatment for his company, nor is he lobbying the government to award the bids to SpaceX. He just wants the ability to compete for them, saying “If we compete and lose that’s fine. But why were they not even competed? That just doesn’t make sense.” He says that the certification progress is tantamount to jumping through bureaucratic hoops, and that the process has raised the launch cost of the Falcon 9 from $60 to $100 million. Additionally, he says that the process hasn’t necessitated any changes to the rocket, and that in its current configuration the Falcon 9 will meet all requirements. Since the contracts cover multiple years, Musk argues that it makes more sense to “wait a few months for the certification process to complete” before having companies compete.
Another possible complication is that the Atlas V first stage engines are made in Russia, which could make reliance on ULA problematic in the future. Still, canceling a contract that’s already been awarded is expensive, especially given the “block buy” arrangement. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with this, especially since Musk seems to have some support in the Senate.