In a sharp escalation of the ongoing debate over military launch contracts, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced Friday afternoon that the company was filing suit against the Air Force to formally protest a “block buy” contract the service made with United Launch Alliance.
In a hastily-arranged press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, Musk announced that the company was filing suit in the Court of Federal Claims over a 36-core block buy contract the Air Force recently signed with ULA. The contract has been in the works for months, but Musk said the company didn’t formally learn of it until March, and exhausted all approaches other than a formal protest to deal with it.
“This is not right,” Musk said. “The national security launches should be put up for competition and they should not be awarded on a sole-source, uncompeted basis.”
He said it “seemed odd” that if SpaceX’s vehicles are suitable for NASA and commercial customers, that they would not also be able to launch something “quite simple” like a GPS satellite. SpaceX is currently working through the certification process with the Air Force to become eligible for national security payloads, but Musk questioned the timing of making the block buy award to ULA while the certification process is ongoing. “Since this is a large, multi-year contract, why not wait a few months for the certification process to complete, and then do a competition?” he asked. “That seems very reasonable to me.”
Musk, at the press conference, played up both cost and national security issues as reasons for not relying solely on ULA for EELV-class launches. A handout provided to the media attending the press conference argued that allowing SpaceX to perform such launches would create cost savings to the government of at least $1 billion per year “even under the most conservative estimates,” it stated.
“I don’t know why their rockets are so expensive. They’re insanely expensive,” Musk said of ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV. He then went on to provide some reasons why he thought they were: SpaceX’s vehicles were simpler, and of a more modern design, than the Atlas and Delta, he argued.
He also mentioned the use of the Russian-built RD-180 engine on the Atlas V first stage, going so far as to suggest that use of the engine might violate current sanctions on Russia. Musk said the Russian official with oversight of the industry, deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, is on the list of officials sanctioned by the US government in response to the Ukraine crisis. “How is it that we’re sending hundreds of millions of US taxpayers’ money at a time when Russia is in the process of invading Ukraine?” he asked. “It would be hard to imagine that Dmitry Rogozin is not benefiting personally from the dollars that are being sent there. On the surface of it, it appears that there’s a good probability of some kind of sanctions violation.”
“This is not SpaceX protesting and saying that these launches should be awarded to us,” he said at one point in the half-hour press conference, which also covered SpaceX’s progress in developing a reusable version of the Falcon 9’s first stage. “We’re just protesting and saying that these launches should be competed. If we compete and lose, that’s fine.”