Rocket-maker Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX and headed by billionaire Elon Musk, is expected to challenge a Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. joint venture next month on a competition to launch a GPS satellite.
Bids are due Nov. 16 in a contest to launch around May 2018 a GPS III satellite as part of the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, program, according to a recently updated notice on the Federal Business Opportunities website. The contract is expected to be announced in March.
The Lockheed-Boeing venture, known as United Launch Alliance LLC, is the sole supplier of the EELV program, which launches military and spy satellites into space. The Pentagon earlier this year certified SpaceX to launch national-security payloads as part of an effort to make the acquisition effort competitive and control rising launch costs. The program is estimated to cost a total of $70 billion through 2030.
While SpaceX has successfully delivered cargo to and from the International Space Station and made gains in developing technology to make boosters reusable, it suffered a setback in June when a Falcon 9 exploded minutes after lifting off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on another NASA mission. Musk blamed the incident on a faulty strut and pledged to more closely monitor the company's supply chain.
Meanwhile, the Defense Department on Friday reportedly denied a waiver to ULA that would have allowed the company to continue buying Russian-made RD-180 engines for its Atlas V rocket. ULA only has a few left in the inventory and needs more than a dozen, possibly two dozen, to be able to compete to launch military missions until 2019. At that point, it hopes to have developed a new rocket called the Vulcan, complete with a new BE-4 engine built by Blue Origin LLC
While the Russian engine is relatively cheap and has contributed to ULA's long record of successful launches -- it recently celebrated its 100th successful liftoff -- the propulsion system has become a flash point in the debate over American reliance on Russian technology for national-security programs, particularly amid rising tensions between the two countries over Russia's military involvement in the Ukraine and now Syria.
Blue Origin, the private aerospace company headed by Amazon.com founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos, has spent a significant amount of its own money developing a domestic alternative to the Russian design, called the BE-4, which will be ready to fly in 2019, according to Rob Meyerson, president of the company. (A precursor successfully lifted off earlier this year.)
Aerojet Rocketdyne, the incumbent engine-maker, is some 16 months behind that schedule, an official said. But it plans on having a certified propulsion system, known as the AR-1, around the same time, according to Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of advanced space and launch programs at the company.
Meanwhile, Boeing Co., the world’s largest aerospace company, last month rejected rocket engine-maker Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc.'s $2 billion bid to buy ULA, an executive said. "This bid, we've really not spent much time on it at all because we're focusing on a totally different direction," Chris Chadwick, chief executive officer of the Chicago-based company's defense unit, said at the time. "There was no serious consideration of this and it's not even in our expansive thought at this point in time."