Congress, Other, Pentagon

SpaceX EELV suit updates

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.”

37 comments to SpaceX EELV suit updates

  • Moose

    “and would be able to transition other mission commitments to our Delta rockets if an emergent need develops.”

    Soooo, all that talk of it being no big thing to start a domestic RD-180 line without a major investment turned out to just be talk. Shocker.

  • Dark Blue Nine

    On top McCain’s actions, language has been drafted in the House to prohibit Atlas V launches using RD-180 engines:

    • Such legislation would restrict the Atlas V to commercial crew and civilian launches which would be a boon for Boeing and its Delta IV rocket family. The DOD said it would cost $1 billion over 5 years (~$200 million per year) to develop domestic production of the RD-180. Of course that’s chump change for a $600 billion a year plus US military.

      But McCain is so angry right now he might want to end cooperation with the Russians aboard the ISS– which would end the ISS program.


      • “But McCain is so angry right now he might want to end cooperation with the Russians aboard the ISS– which would end the ISS program.”

        And would also end SLS because Bolden has said under those circumstances he would go to the President and recommend that SLS be cancelled, because without access to ISS there would be no way to test out the tech needed for the human deep space missions that SLS supposedly exists to launch.

  • common sense

    To me here lies a major problem for ULA. I haven’t seen the suit yet of course but all SpaceX can do I assume is to sue the Air Force at this stage. So if ULA had nothing to be blamed for why are they making those statements?

    I dunno but it’s already fishy smelling it seems to me.

  • josh

    Ula is in big trouble. If this turns out like the tanker procurement scandal they could lose not just a few but all launches for the foreseeable future. Oh, and if air force procurement officials were bribed they’ll hopefully go to jail.

  • Malmesbury

    The reason McCain is angry is that the original “sell” for allowing RD-180 for Atlas was that production would be moved to the US. But that can got kicked down the road….

    So ULA got a billion a year to support their “assured” launch system.

    Now ULA are claiming that the assured access didn’t include actually setting up to build the engines in the US. Technically this is right – but this is not how it was sold politically.

    So ULA wants –

    1) a 36 core contract
    2) the billion a year on top
    3) the money to setup an RD-180 production facility.

    • Fred Willett

      And SpaceX
      1/ doesn’t get paid $1B for assured access.
      2/ Designs and builds it’s own engines
      3/ Is still way cheaper than anybody else in the world.
      4/ And is locked out of competing DoD launches till 2019
      Seems like a win to ULA to me.

      • Neil

        And you may add that SpaceX is also in the process of designing, testing and putting into production, their Raptor engine which is apparently pretty close to an RD-180 for performance, all without a nickel from the U.S. taxpayer. You can bet that this will take considerably less time than if say Rocketdyne started building a U.S. equivalent RD-180.
        Sheesh, chalk and cheese.

    • E.P. Grondine

      You really have to ask yourself how Valentin Glushoko’s last engine is still state of the art.

      What the hell have the US labs and companies been doing for the last oh, say 20 years or so?

      • What the hell have the US labs and companies been doing for the last oh, say 20 years or so?

        You got that right. Back in the 90’s while working for Hughes we were all scratching our heads at the fixation on Russian engines. “What the hell for?”

        • Michael Listner

          Because the Russian engines are closed-looped and produce 25% more thrust than the open loop system the U.S. uses. Closed-loop engines are more difficult to engineer, but the Russians did it starting with the NK-33 for the N-1 and the current RD-180. A lot of U.S. engineers had to swallow their pride when they discovered how well-engineered the Russian engines were and the performance they had compared to their American counterparts.

          • Reality Bits

            Jean-Yves Le Gall said that the Europeans would spend millions of Euros to build an elegant engine with nine times the thrust, but the people from the California garages built a rocket with nine engines instead.

            You can have the worlds most elegant design, but it could be unaffordable and difficult to manufacture. Simpler is better – KISS.

            The N-1, a highly reliable rocket with no successful launches… The NK-33 was reworked into the AJ-26 by Aerojet which is what is actually flying.

            Let’s look at the RD-180. So we know from ULA’s action that the RD-180 yearly production rate is around 4-5 engines (see the news story of RD-AMROSS now shipping the engines as soon as they are built). In the meantime how many engines are being built every year in Hawthorne? I believe they are now the largest manufacturer or rocket engines, by volume, on the planet. As soon as they can successfully get back a first stage the engineers are going to carefully study it and improve their designs. I bet they have done this with the Draco engines already.

        • E.P. Grondine

          Hi AW –

          So instead of fixing the problem we waste $8 billion on ATK’s Ares 1.

      • Fred Willett

        It’s the way the Russian engines were built with a strong feedback loop between design and manufacturing. In the US these two teams have tended to be separate. The manufacturing team thus tends to concentrate on trying to realize what has been designed by the design team.
        Musk, on the other hand is a strong proponent of the Russian practice of keeping a strong feedback loop going between his design and manufacturing people. The result is a quick honing in on an optimal and practical product.

  • Jim Nobles

    I am hopeful this causes a great big spotlight to shine on the whole process. The Billion dollar a year “Thank You For Being Our Friend” payment to Old Space Rockets Inc. and all the rest.

    ULA, with some help with their friends in the government-some uniformed and some elected, having being robbing the taxpayer blind. And I’m ready for that to stop. If it can be stopped.

  • E.P. Grondine

    If you think US-Russia relations are bad now, just pause to consider how bad they would have been without ISS etc.

  • Fred Willett

    The real crime here is that the launch industry has allowed itself to be convinced that reusability is “Too hard” and “Can’t be done”. The result is high prices have become baked in to the launch business.
    It’s like IBM were still making mainframes and Steve Jobs had never been born.

    • Bennett In Vermont

      “It’s like IBM were still making mainframes and Steve Jobs had never been born.”

      Perfect analogy. If what SpaceX is doing now has the same impact on both access and routine commercialization of space, the world will be a very different place 20 years from now.

      I’m looking forward to this important cultural revolution.

    • Reality Bits

      “It’s like IBM were still making mainframes”

      They still do. At least get your facts straight.

      • Fred Willett

        Like all analogies if you look too closely they are not really accurate at all.
        Stand back further. You’ll see what I mean.
        Back a bit further…. a bit further.

      • oldAtlas_Eguy

        Actually IBM’s “mainframes” are multi MPU units all existing in a custimizable unit. A server cabinet equivelent. These computers have extra software and hardware over that of most server cabinets that hold PC blades to implement more task sharing and reliability switchover capabilities. So basiclly the PC revolution changed how IBM designs its “mainframes”.

        As to the analogy it is appropriate because SpaceX is chalenging the status quo on capabilities and design.

    • Vladislaw

      I highly doubt that. I would rather sell you a disposable bic lighter, once a week, than a one time sale of a zippo lighter, where someone else gets to sell you the fuel for it.

  • Jim Nobles

    One American company may have just solved their Russian engines problem. ATK now controls Orbital Science. So maybe Antares will go all solids?

    • Reality Bits

      Mr. David W. Thompson, Orbital’s President and Chief Executive Officer, will be President and Chief Executive Officer of the new company; Mr. Blake E. Larson, President of ATK’s Aerospace Group, will serve as its Chief Operating Officer; and Mr. Garrett E. Pierce, Orbital’s Chief Financial Officer, will hold the same position in the new company.

      A 16-member Board of Directors will be led by Chairman Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman (U.S. Air Force, ret.) and will include seven directors from ATK’s Board and nine directors from Orbital’s Board.

      Sounds like Orbital is taking over ATK’s Aerospace and Defense business.

  • Robert G Oler

    “ULA is the only government certified launch provider that meets all of the unique EELV requirements that are critical to supporting our troops and keeping our country safe. That is the case today, when the acquisition process started in 2012 and at the time of the contract award in December 2013.”

    This is part of ULA’s statement in regards to SpaceX actions…thanks to the “war on terror” the BS from the defense industrial complex just never stops. “supporting our troops and keeping our country safe” that is the tone of the statement and its just mostly defense contractor babble.

    Defense industries now routinly use the phrase “(insert weapon system here) (keeps us safe, supports the troops, stops the bad guys) so you need to get Congress to keep this program going”

    One of the things that is driving the country into “lesspower” status is the “defense at any price” meme. Right now the DoD is fat. It builds ships that cannot defend themselves, are no where near budget, planes that cannot fly in bad weather…and rockets that cost an enormous amount to launch satellites that are something out of another era.

    Its time to break the logjam. Open the bidding to SpaceX and do it in a fair competitive way and see who wins…didnt the guy from ULA say as much in a debate in the Congress with Musk?

    Money where mouth is

    Robert G. Oler

  • Neil

    Just imagine what ‘capability’ SpaceX would create with an extra billion dollars a year.

  • Fred Willett

    SpaceX currently has 10% of the global launch market.
    This is set to rise to 25% in the next few years. This is what they currently have in their order books.
    25% globally = c.10 launches a year.
    That is 20 plus launches by 2016 and 10 or so a year after that.
    The block buy locks DoD out of the use of SpaceX and it’s cheaper prices through 2019.
    For DoD this is an incredibly stupid deal.

    • Ben Russell-Gough

      Hey, it isn’t as if it’s their money!

    • BRC

      “For DoD this is an incredibly stupid deal.”

      Ya think this is bad now, imagine the their attempt to defend themselves from Elon’s lawsuit, especially with this rumbling from Congress of blocking any more Russian engine purchases.

      I think this is going to play havoc on the AF’s defense strategy, whereby they must explain to everybody just why their approach of sole-sourcing to the EELV was such a magnificently ingenious strategy, especially with it being coupled to the idea of transporting to orbit critical U.S. space assets, vital to National Security, on a rocket whose engines were outsourced from Vlad’s Russia!

  • Malmesbury

    “It’s the way the Russian engines were built with a strong feedback loop between design and manufacturing.”

    Incremental development. As compared to “modern” aerospace practise – invent a theoretical design way beyond the state of the art. Try to build it. Then wonder why the program is a disaster.

    The NK-33 and RD-180 were the result of a long, long incremental process.

  • Ben Russell-Gough

    In possibly related news, OSC and ATK’s space/defence divisions are to merge. This will allow OSC to operate Minotaur as an in-house product (as the company will manufacture its own motors). I wonder if it might also see the currently politically-risky Antares (using a Ukrainian-built core and Russian NK-33 engines) replaced by ATK’s Athena-II/-III series.

    Aerojet-Rocketdyne is going to have to get its finger out over domestic RD-180 and AJ-26 production or it might find itself losing ground to OSC/ATK’s solids and SpaceX’s hydrocarbon engines.

    • Reality Bits

      Might we see some version of the Liberty pop up again maybe w/o the Ariane derived second stage?

      Might we see a Castor 120 with strap-ons in an Ariane 6 configuration?

      • Ben Russell-Gough

        Well, Orbital has its own crew vehicle in development. With Atlas-V politically iffy, Liberty or a modification thereof might find itself proposed as its LV.

        • BRC

          Well, Orbital(-ATK) can certainly continue to proceed with developing its own crewed vehicle. But then begs the question as to whether the passengers would want to sit on top of a rocket that – if there’s a problem at ignition, but pre-lift off – can’t be shut off? Or worse, goes CATO Ka-boom?

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