Late Friday evening, SpaceX issued a press release confirming what the company’s CEO, Elon Musk, announced earlier in the day: that the company was filing suit to protest the Air Force’s block buy EELV contract with United Launch Alliance (ULA). Besides going over the rationale for their protest, the company also used the release to announce the creation of a new website, “Freedom to Launch,” and said that it would post the official protest document on the site on Monday.
Initially, the site showed a countdown clock set to hit zero at noon Eastern time on Monday. However, by early Monday morning, the countdown had been replaced with a “Launching Soon” notice; by late Monday afternoon, there was no sign of the protest document. A spokesperson representing SpaceX said that the company was still planning to file the protest document Monday, but would not be posting it to the website. Instead, the protest document will be available through the Court of Federal Claims’ computer system within 48 hours. (The spokesperson confirmed early Monday evening that the complaint had, in fact, been formally filed with the court.)
ULA, meanwhile, issued its own statement about the suit late Monday, emphasizing both the cost savings that it argues the block buy will create, as well as ULA’s position as the sole EELV-class launch provider certified by the Air Force. “EELV continues to be the most successful DOD acquisition program of the past few decades,” the release stated. “Launches have been delivered on schedule, meeting or exceeding all performance requirements, and exceeding cost reduction goals.”
The release, though, also intended to shore up one area of concern about ULA’s EELV contract: its use of Russian-manufactured RD-180 engines for the Atlas V. The release stated, as ULA officials have in the recent past, that it maintains a stockpile of engines that would cover two years’ worth of launches “and would be able to transition other mission commitments to our Delta rockets if an emergent need develops.” Also, as The Hill reported a few days ago, ULA has changed the way it received RD-180 engines from NPO Energomash, replacing a single large annual shipment with two smaller shipments later this year.
While the Air Force awaits SpaceX’s formal complaint, it’s also facing complaints of a different kind from a senator. Late Friday, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) published on his website a letter he sent to Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James regarding EELV competition. In the letter, he asked for clarification from James about testimony she gave before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier in the month, expressing doubts about her explanation for the reasons behind the 36-core block buy contract. Without explicitly naming SpaceX, McCain suggested that James’s comments from that hearing that “that no new entrant is qualified to perform ‘heavier’ launches is misleading and possibly false.”
McCain’s office also included in the release a letter from the senator to Defense Department Inspector General Jon Rymer, asking him to “independently review recent developments in the EELV program,” such as the reduction in the number of launches set aside for competition, and whether the block buy award “put at risk competitive launches to satisfy the Air Force’s obligation to perform contractually as to the 36 sole-source launches.”