A start-up rocket-maker headed by billionaire Elon Musk says it has sued the U.S. Air Force to open more satellite launches to competition.
Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX and based in Hawthorne, Calif., said it planned to file the complaint on Friday with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., according to a company press release. It also said a copy of the challenge would be posted today at www.freedomtolaunch.com, but the document wasn't available as of 7:30 p.m. local time.
So what's this all about?
SpaceX wants to be able to compete against United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. and the sole provider of medium- and heavy-lift satellite launches under an Air Force program called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV. It's challenging a contract the service recently awarded to the alliance for 36 launches through fiscal 2017.
While the Air Force has said the so-called block buy was needed to lock in prices and curb rising launch costs, SpaceX says it effectively boxed them out of military business, especially because the agreement includes medium-sized GPS satellites that could fit inside its Falcon 9 rockets. The company is seeking but hasn't yet received certification to carry national-security payloads.
"This exclusive deal unnecessarily costs U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars and defers meaningful free competition for years to come," Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk said in the release. "We are simply asking that SpaceX and any other qualified domestic launch providers be allowed to compete in the EELV program for any and all missions that they could launch."
SpaceX, along with Orbital Sciences Corp., already has a contract with NASA to resupply the International Space Station. The company completed its latest cargo resupply mission earlier this month. It also has multiple agreements with commercial companies.
The Air Force plans to buy three EELV launches in fiscal 2015, which begins Oct. 1, for a $1.38 billion, or about $460 million per liftoff. That includes funding to essentially guarantee the government "assured access" to space; the alliance has successfully delivered more than 80 satellites into orbit, most recently a payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. SpaceX argues it could provide the same service for a quarter of the price.
The Pentagon over the next five years plans to spend $9.5 billion on the launch program, according to a March 5 report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Since its inception in the mid-1990s, the acquisition effort is estimated to cost a total of $70 billion through fiscal 2030, according to the document.
SpaceX is also seeking to capitalize on the rising political tensions between the U.S. and Russia by pointing out that one of ULA's boosters, the Atlas V, uses the RD-180 engine made by the Russian company NPO Energomash -- and that Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia's space sector, was recently sanctioned by the White House following Russia's invasion of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.
"In light of international events, this seems like the wrong time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kremlin," Musk said. "Yet, this is what the Air Force’s arrangement with ULA does, despite the fact that there are domestic alternatives available that do not rely on components from countries that pose a national security risk."
Air Force Undersecretary Eric Fanning last month acknowledged "there are a number of concerns the Air Force has and others have anytime we're relying on such an important piece of equipment from vendors outside the U.S." and said the service was considering seeking a license to produce the engines inside the country to guarantee their supply.