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Air Force seeks to dismiss SpaceX EELV suit

In a motion filed with the Court of Federal Claims this week, the Air Force seeks to dismiss SpaceX’s lawsuit against it protesting the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) block buy contract the service awarded to United Launch Alliance (ULA), arguing that SpaceX missed its chance to protest the award by two years.

“SpaceX’s complaint is amorphous,” the Air Force motion, filed with the court on Monday, states. “Rather than challenge a single procurement action, SpaceX broadly protests any sole-source purchase of single-core evolved expendable launch vehicles (EELV) and associated launch services.” [emphasis in original] The Air Force argues that the court should narrow the scope of SpaceX’s protest to the latest block buy award.

And, the Air Force goes on to argue, SpaceX should have filed that protest not in late April, but instead back in 2012, when the Air Force issued a request for proposals for what became the block buy contract formally awarded in December 2013. “SpaceX knew about the agency’s intent to award a sole-source contract to ULS, and received a copy of the RFP less than a month after it was issued. Yet SpaceX failed to object—or to indicate that it too could compete for the eventual contract,” the Air Force stated. “Although SpaceX may have ongoing concerns regarding the EELV program that it wishes to explore, SpaceX’s own failure to timely object to the RFP means that it does not have standing to bring those complaints to this Court by challenging what it calls the ‘block buy’ contract.”

The motion then goes to lay out that argument in greater detail, setting out a timeline of events involved in the Air Force’s block buy contract with ULA and the opportunities SpaceX previously had to protest the award, dating back to a “justification and approval” (J&A) the Air Force published through the Federal Business Opportunities website in January 2012. “SpaceX did not protest the J&A at the time it was issued,” the Air Force’s motion states. “Nor did SpaceX protest the J&A at any other point in the two years before it commenced this action.” [emphasis in original]

The Air Force agues that SpaceX lacks standing to protest since it was not an “interested party” to the EELV block buy contract: it was not an “actual or prospective bidder” as defined by law, as it did not object to the original RFP in 2012 or submit a “capability statement” in response to it. “Of course, the reason that SpaceX did not submit such a capability statement—or for that matter, the reason that it did not protest—is obvious,” the Air Force argues. “Simply put, at the time that the Air Force issued the RFP, SpaceX would not have been a qualified bidder” as its Falcon 9 rocket had not been certified by the Air Force.

Although SpaceX has since completed the three successful flights of its Falcon 9 v1.1 that are a key, but not sole, part of the certification process, the company does not have standing now to protest the contract and reopen the procurement, the Air Force claims. “Rather, only now that SpaceX believes it can compete does it raise—for the very first time—an argument that implicates the solicitation’s terms. This tactic is explicitly barred.”

The suit has seen little progress since SpaceX filed it in late April, particularly after the court issued at the end of April—and lifted about a week later—an injunction on purchases of RD-180 engines that was tangential to the case itself. SpaceX must reply to the Air Force motion to dismiss by the end of this month.

120 comments to Air Force seeks to dismiss SpaceX EELV suit

  • Coastal Ron

    No surprise of course, since by virtue of making the original award to ULA the Air Force contracting officers felt that there were no other potential bidders. Essentially the Air Force contract due diligence is the basis for this, but the SpaceX goal is to appeal beyond just the technical merits of the contract award and to have the award judged on the overall merits of locking in ULA for 36 cores when the U.S. Taxpayer could see cost savings by adding current alternative launch providers.

    And SpaceX has gained the attention of Congress, which is their goal since no doubt the Air Force contracting personnel can show that they performed their function properly within the constraints assigned.

    Still early in this saga…

  • Dark Blue Nine

    USAF’s argument would hold water if the block buy was only a year or so long. SpaceX missed their window and should just spend the next 12-odd months preparing their bid for the next round.

    But burdening nearly all DOD payloads for the next half-decade with expensive EELVs that may lose a primary foreign engine supplier who appears to be overcharging in the first place is awful policy for those payloads, for the launch industry at large, and for the taxpayer.

    This case should be decided on the merits, not on the letter of arcane procurement deadlines. But given that the judge was willing to accept the executive’s claim that Rogozin wasn’t benefitting from RD-180 payments despite a total lack of evidence, I don’t hold out hope.

    • Michael J. Listner

      It is being decided on the merits, and the merits are that Space X didn’t protest when it had the chance. The Motion makes it explicit that Space X had up to 70 days to protest the bid with ULA was getting its proposal together for USAF. Space X did not make a peep during this period and once the contract was awarded Space X lost its chance to protest. The merits of this case revolve around federal procurement law and the fact that Space X was in error and not the USAF.

      • Dark Blue Nine

        “It is being decided on the merits, and the merits are that Space X didn’t protest when it had the chance.”

        That’s not the merits of a case. The merits are the inherent rights or wrongs of a case, regardless of procedural issues. A procurement calendar is a procedural issue — missing a deadline does not determine whether SpaceX has been wronged by USAF actions that essentially prohibit competition for national defense payload launches for the next half-decade. (Not to mention whether the national defense, the taxpayer, and the industry at large have been wronged.)

        One would hope that the case would go to trial so that these merits could be argued. But given that Braden was willing to lift the RD-180 injunction based on the say-so of State and Treasury in the absence of any evidence, I doubt it.

        • Michael J. Listner


          • Dark Blue Nine


            Thanks for the insightful analysis.

            • Michael J. Listner

              It makes no sense for me to spend the time trying to explain this when you’re not going to listen.

              • Dark Blue Nine

                I listened (or read).

                You misused the term “merits” above. When I explained to you what “merits” are in general and what the merits are in this case, all you wrote was “wrong”.

                Below, your own text admits that the USAF did not follow its own analysis and regs. When I pointed this out to you, you wrote a non sequitur about judges not deciding cases based on the public good. When I agreed with you, and reiterated the J&A issue, all you wrote was “wrong”.

                In order to “listen” to an argument, it has to be more substantive than a single-word declaration of “wrong”, not contradict itself, and get its basic terms right. Your argument flunked all three.

              • Michael J. Listner

                “You misused the term “merits” above. When I explained to you what “merits” are in general and what the merits are in this case, all you wrote was “wrong”

                No, you misuse the term “merits.” Consider this definition:

                Merit is a term subject to various meanings, but in the legal context, merit refers to a claim which has a valid basis, setting forth sufficient facts from which the court could find a valid claim of deprivation of a legal right. Meritorious claims usually cite legal authorities, such as statutory laws or case law, to support their arguments. However, merit is a subjective term that takes various factors into account on a case-by-case basis. For example, a pro se defendant seeking post-conviction relief is often be expected to construct legal arguments, cite legal authority, or draft her petition as artfully as a lawyer would. If the evidence defeats the claim, the claim is “meritless.”

                You can check the definition I quoted here: http://definitions.uslegal.com/m/merit/

                The merits are the inherent rights or wrongs of a case, regardless of procedural issues.

                No, the merits in this case is whether Space X has the legal right to challenge the block buy, which the USAF motion argues that they do not. USAF backs up its assertion with relevant case law, which suggests that the Space X claim is meritless.

                I said no such thing. My comment was as follows:

                If Space X can show the USAF prevented them from providing a capability statement or filing a protest to the RFPs once they were issued to ULA, then they may be able to argue that it does have standing to protest the block buy.

                I merely stated that one possible way for Space X to show that it does have standing is if Space X can show the USAF prevented them from filing a capability statement or protest the RFP. I did not said that USAF did not follow its own procedures and regulations. You added that bit yourself.

  • Michael J. Listner

    You’re both wrong. I just read through the Motion to Dismiss. Excellent research and argument by USAF attorneys. It’s a very effective Motion and in my opinion Space X is going to get hammered.

    • Coastal Ron

      Michael J. Listner said:

      I just read through the Motion to Dismiss. Excellent research and argument by USAF attorneys.

      As I stated above, I have no doubt that the letter of the law was followed. However Congress has the final say in this since they have to fund this procurement action, and SpaceX is really focused on them.

      For SpaceX the lawsuit was just a vehicle to get the attention of sympathetic politicians (i.e. politicians who are concerned about U.S. Taxpayer value), not to force action through the judicial system. SpaceX can lose this lawsuit but still win a re-compete, which is their ultimate goal.

      • Michael J. Listner

        And if that happened should we not level the same accusations of political cronyism that is being leveled at ULA?

        • Coastal Ron

          Michael J. Listner said:

          And if that happened should we not level the same accusations of political cronyism that is being leveled at ULA?

          I haven’t used the word “cronyism”. I use the word monopoly, which even the Air Force acknowledges has led to higher prices.

          And since what the end result of what SpaceX is doing is to reduce costs, I’m not sure how that is interpreted as bad in any way… unless you’re ULA and you’re trying to protect higher than normal pricing.

          • Michael J. Listner

            Space X isn’t doing this to reduce costs; Space X is doing this for itself just like ULA is.

            • Jim Nobles

              Space X isn’t doing this to reduce costs; Space X is doing this for itself just like ULA is.

              Mr. Listner, you need to do a little research before you presume to understand the motivations involved here. You have inadvertently put your lack of knowledge on display.

              SpaceX and ULA definitely DO NOT have the same motivations and goals.

              For a start you can google or go on youtube and research Elon Musk and SpaceX. If you have the time and do not fear knowledge.

              • Michael J. Listner

                Fact: ULA is in the business to procure national security launches to make money and to make a profit.

                Fact: Space X is in business to procure launches in the commercial sector and the national security launch market and to make a profit. IF Mr. Musk is not in the business to make money then his private investors would have never materialized and any hopes he has for an eventual IPO will be short-circuited. To that end, Space X seeks to offer competitive prices to obtain national security launches from ULA to make a profit.

                I doubt very much that a YouTube video or any other public relations put out by Space X will include this basic fact, but that does not negate the fact that they are a for-profit business that wants to make money.

                Considering this, how are the motivations of Space X and ULA different?

              • Jim Nobles

                Considering this, how are the motivations of Space X and ULA different?

                There are profound philanthropic differences in the philosophies of each corperation. One is actually working for the betterment of humankind and the other has the primary goal of profit.

                You sir, have not done your homework.

              • Dick Eagleson

                I don’t agree with Listener too much but I’m with him on this one. SpaceX is decidedly not a philanthropy, it’s a business. It is run, first and foremost, to make money. You and I agree that one consequence of SpaceX’s success will be that humankind becomes a truly spacefaring species. But that will be a result of SpaceX’s success, not a substitute for it.

                To the extent that SpaceX and ULA differ it seems to be primarily in what each is willing to – or must – do in order to make the profit, the quest for which drives both organizations. ULA has demonstrated that it is willing to pay off a civilian USAF procurement official with a cushy job at a major supplier in return for rushing a block buy contract through at the last minute that would effectively render its imminent competitor a spectator for the next five-plus years. That ULA decided, with obvious malice aforethought, to do this simply illustrates their inability to do anything else, being, as they clearly are, a hopelessly uncompetitive industrial dinosaur adapted to no environment except the hothouse world of monopoly government contracting.

                Against this, SpaceX arrays competence and competitiveness – because they can. SpaceX will do its level best to tear down the corrupt bureaucratic walls that currently protect ULA from competition and then Elon & Co. will gleefully rip ULA’s guts out and feast on them like the sharp-toothed corporate predators they are. No quarter has been asked and none will be given. ULA isn’t going to be their only sanguinary meal either. Arrogant and corrupt dinosaurs deserve to be gutted and eaten.

                Elon will accomplish what he can not because he’s some fairy tale white knight, but because he’s a well-practiced and still practicing businessman who is not at all above, as Robert Heinlein described it, “gouging and clapper-clawing and biting in the clinches.” His antagonists have resorted to corrupt practices and political influence because it’s all they’ve got. It won’t be enough.

            • Coastal Ron

              Michael J. Listner said:

              Space X isn’t doing this to reduce costs…

              Considering that the way government procurement works is that unless there is an overriding technical reason to choose a particular service provider, the one with the lowest substantiated price wins.

              In other words, the U.S. Taxpayer can’t lose with a re-compete.

              From a customer standpoint – which is really the only one that counts – where is the harm?

              • Michael J. Listner

                The overall goal of Space X is to gain market share. Reducing costs is a means to obtain greater market share. This is basic capitalism.

                However, when it comes to government procurement there are procedures that need to followed. The harm is if you make an exception for one company or individual you open the door to making exceptions for everyone else, which increases the cost to the government of procurement, which in this case would mean a big loss for the taxpayer in the long run.

              • Dick Eagleson

                Hey guys, it’s both. SpaceX wants to gain market share and also wants to lower costs, both as a way to hoover up more share of existing markets and to expand the total size and number of niches in the launch services market. Two birds. One stone.

    • Neil

      Not ‘hammered’, just lose. But winning is only part of their objective IMO. As DBN pointed out above, this case has raised the level of public and congressional awareness. Something that’s been clearly missing until now.

      • Michael J. Listner

        Despite the rhetoric from Senator McCain, it’s unlikely Congress will interfere with the block buy.

        • Dick Eagleson

          External circumstances and ULA’s inability to internally compensate for them will interfere with the block buy regardless of the outcome of SpaceX’s lawsuit. Putin’s bid to be the second coming of Peter the Great is going to be a far more relevant matter. With no more RD-180’s in prospect, the whole Atlas V-centric basis of the block buy has been rendered inoperative. Even if ULA could somehow crank up the Delta IV production line to compensate for Atlas V’s imminent demise – which I don’t believe for a minute they can – Delta IV’s are more expensive than equivalent Atlas V’s – particularly Delta IV Heavies – so ULA is either going to eat a fatal dose of overages or they’re going to have to reopen the block buy’s economics. If they do that, the whole thing unravels like a cheap sweater. Congress may or may not take a decisive interest before that point, but they can hardly ignore a ULA that comes, cap in hand, whining for more money – especially if it’s for enough more money to erase the alleged “savings” of the original block buy. This whole corrupt deal depended crucially on staying in the shadows for even marginal viability. Mr. Putin’s galloping megalomania has inadvertently shone a bright light on the whole sordid mess and others will now keep it illuminated like a follow-spot.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      “You’re both wrong. I just read through the Motion to Dismiss. Excellent research and argument by USAF attorneys. It’s a very effective Motion and in my opinion Space X is going to get hammered.”

      In the future, remind both of us not to rely on your “opinion”:

      “SpaceX scores an early win in its lawsuit against the US government”


      “SpaceX lawsuit against ULA can go forward; sides ordered to prep for mediation”


      “Judge Orders Mediation for SpaceX, U.S. Air Force”


  • common sense

    It bothers me that the Air Force is making up, it seems, an acceptable timetable to question/protest the process. Especially since there (apparently) was no process for a competing bid back then by their own admission. Maybe SpaceX was not ready then but why does that preclude them from entering the bid now? Why did the AF rush to the block-buy while SpaceX was obviously getting ready? I mean if the AF comes up with a made-up time table I can’t see why SpaceX could not come up with their own saying that that it is clear that the AF rush to a sole source contract. Especially in view that sole source are very specific and should be used sparsely otherwise the door opens to issuing contracts to our best friends… I think the AF is digging a hole for themselves by doing so and they are establishing a precedent which in the end might not be useful to competition or to the AF.


    • Michael J. Listner

      There is nothing unacceptable about what USAF did. The Motion to Dismiss addresses all these criticisms. Bottom line is this: Space X was qualified at the time the RFP was offered, Space X had access to the RFP immediately after it was issued; Space X failed to protest until after the contract was awarded and not before. Federal case law, which was cited very well by USAF, basically says that Space X did not timely protest the bid and did not have a valid reason for not so and is trying to rewrite procurement law just because it was inadvertent to begin with.

      • Michael J. Listner

        The above sentence should read “Space X was not qualified at the time the RFP was offered”

        • yg1968

          The deadlines and requirements were set to ensure that SpaceX wouldn’t qualify for them. The idea of a block-buy sole-source contract was adopted to prevent SpaceX from competing for years to come. It’s about time that someones shines the light on this type of pork politics.

      • common sense

        I am not saying it is “unacceptable” it probably is, technically anyway. But I am questioning their process especially since they are offering a sole source contract at a time when the AF knew that SpaceX was getting ready to be qualified. This whole thing does not smell good. And as I said it might create a precedent for others and it probably is not a good thing.

        About the time to protest, is this explicitly written somewhere?

        • Michael J. Listner

          The key is that before the USAF was going to invite Space X to bid on the “block buy” it did an initial assessment called a class justification and approval (J&A) to determine whether Space X would be considered a “responsible source” and “the only launch provider” that could meet USAF requirements from FY 2012 to 2017, which encompasses the “block buy”. At the time of the J&A Space X was still in the process of getting its certification flights with the last happening in January 2014. Based on this Space X did not meet the J&A, which Space X did not protest. USAF did find that Space X would be ready for procurement starting FY 2016. These findings were made public via FedBizOps.gov.

          As a potential new entrant,Space X was given access to the RFPs for launch and procurement given to ULA (minus propriety information) and Space X had the opportunity to protest at this point and make the case that it was ready. Space X did nothing until after ULA completed the RFPs and USAF awarded the contract.

          It’s not so much the actual time to protest as it is when a protest should be filed, which is backed up by federal case law. Space X didn’t protest when it should have. Instead, it suggests that the rules should be rewritten to the detriment of federal procurement rules and ULA so that it can bid even though the contract has been awarded.

          • Dark Blue Nine

            “The key is that before the USAF was going to invite Space X to bid on the ‘block buy’ it did an initial assessment called a class justification and approval (J&A) to determine whether Space X would be considered a ‘responsible source’ and ‘the only launch provider’ that could meet USAF requirements from FY 2012 to 2017, which encompasses the ‘block buy’… USAF did find that Space X would be ready for procurement starting FY 2016.”

            Well, there’s your problem, right there. Why did USAF execute a block buy through 2017 when USAF’s own J&A analysis told it that another competitor would be ready in FY 2016 (which is actually late CY 2015)?

            It’s one thing for a potential contractor to miss a procurement deadline.

            It’s another for a federal agency to structure procurements to preclude competition for years longer than what their own regulations say they should.

            (It’s yet another to lock in a provider for a half-decade when that provider likely won’t be able to deliver due to foreign supply chain interruptions.)

            It’s hypocritical, to say the least, for the USAF to argue that SpaceX missed deadlines when the USAF isn’t following its own procurement regs. The latter is the greater wrong. Hopefully, the judge sees through this. But again, I doubt it.

    • Art

      The Air Force did rush to a sole source contract. They awarded it at the end of the first quarter of the current fiscal year. They could have just as easily waited until the end of the second quarter of the FY. There are reasons for this & a follow on job for the lead AF contracting agent is just one of them. Also, there are high marks on performance evaluations at stake, which makes a difference when competing for promotions in the AF ranks. ULA applied the pressure & the contracting official made a closed door deal. Trying to freeze out the competition is what ULA was aiming for. Now the Air Force is trying to make amends by speeding up the final certification process. The rats sure do come out in force.

  • Michael Listner, while I am ostensibly on SpaceX’s side, and I am no lawyer, I agree with you. (In fact, even before I read your comment, I thought it sounded like the Air Force had a pretty strong case.) At the very least, contesting this further is likely to prove expensive for SpaceX — which ultimately would be reflected in their rocket prices. That would be counter-productive.

    SpaceX has plenty of commercial payloads on their plate, if they demonstrated they could launch them they could get many more, and even if they won the case they have not demonstrated that they could launch the Air Force payloads without shafting their commercial customers.

    My advice: move on and improve your launch rate. Once you’ve proven you could actually fulfill the contract for less money than ULA can achieve, and have surplus rockets lying about with no payloads, it might be time to consider a lawsuit. If they actually achieve the launch rate they need to fly out their backlog, it won’t be long before they have a lot more experience than ULA — and ULA still won’t have an engine. I think SpaceX can win this without a lawsuit.

    — Donald

    • common sense

      I absolutely disagree with you. It is in SpaceX best interest to get as many customers they can get. There is no distraction you can demonstrate as you are alleging. The price of the stock is “confidential” since it is not a public company.

      SpaceX has fulfilled the requirements to compete, there is nothing to do at this stage for the launch rate. What do they have to prove? To whom? Unless it is specifically written in an RFP or whatever they have nothing to “prove”.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      “SpaceX has plenty of commercial payloads on their plate”

      Their manifest falls off in 2016, according to their website. The block buy goes through 2017. Even with recent delays, SpaceX should be working to build their backlog in the outyears. In the case of national defense payloads, they can’t thanks to the block buy. Hence this lawsuit.

      • The point is, SpaceX can’t now demonstrate the ability to launch them, even if they win the lawsuit, and it is all too easy for the Air Force to prove that they can’t. Even if a lawsuit is the way to go, now is the wrong time for it.

        — Donald

        • Dark Blue Nine

          “The point is, SpaceX can’t now..”

          But this isn’t about now. As you state, their manifest is currently full.

          It’s about the future, when SpaceX’s manifest drops off.

          “Even if a lawsuit is the way to go, now is the wrong time for it.”

          It takes years to build manifests in the launch business. SpaceX can’t wait until 2016-17 to build their manifest for 2016-17. They have to work that manifest now, and in the case of national security payloads, that means they have to go to court now.

          And the whole point of this USAF motion to dismiss is that SpaceX waited too long to protest. Winning that argument is not going to get any better with time.

  • Its probably not a good idea to sue your future customer. Musk probably thinks he can muscle the Air Force given backing by his lawless friends in the Whitehouse. Not likely.

    • John Malkin

      This is the purpose of a corporate legal department. Samsung has had many battles with Apple even though they are a huge customer. It’s just business. It’s the American way.

    • Coastal Ron

      amightywind said:

      Its probably not a good idea to sue your future customer.

      Are you kidding? Do you know how many times Boeing has sued the U.S. Government? That sure hasn’t affected their win rate for contracts, now has it?

      You should do better research…

      • Dick Eagleson

        Windy has had this matter pointed out to him repeatedly. He keeps passing the same old gas because it’s all he’s got.

  • Dark Blue Nine

    On the same day that the USAF is trying to keep SpaceX out of the national security payload business, another major GEO satellite operator (Inmarsat) signs up for a Falcon Heavy (of all things) and up to two other launches:


    You gotta love the irony (and stupidity)…

  • Michael J. Listner

    One of these days (not today) I’ll learn to ignore these boards.

    • Hay, I listened to you and, whether you agree with me or not, I think I responded thoughtfully. . . .

      — Donald

    • Coastal Ron

      Michael J. Listner said:

      One of these days (not today) I’ll learn to ignore these boards.

      The name of this blog is “Space Politics”, and politics is not something courtly and benign. If you can’t articulate and defend your views against a bunch of people you don’t know then how can you be expected to articulate and defend them at all?

      And I mean that in a positive way, since my participation on Space Politics has helped me to understand and refine my positions and has helped me to sharpen my ability to explain and defend them. And realistically it would be presumptuous of me to think that everyone will agree with me, but I do end up learning for those that don’t agree with me. Not always what they want me to learn, but nonetheless… ;-)

      My $0.02

      • Coastal Ron: . . . my participation on Space Politics has helped me to understand and refine my positions and has helped me to sharpen my ability to explain and defend them. And . . . I do end up learning [from] those that don’t agree with me.

        I often agree with you, but even if I didn’t, I would agree with every word you said here (even the ones I cut out for brevity). Well said.

        — Donald

    • Neil

      Please don’t. While I might not agree with everything you say, the fact that issues are raised and debated provides greater insight into them. Particularly where some of us don’t reside or fully understand the U.S. political and legal systems.

      • E.P. Grondine

        Hi Neil –

        “the fact that issues are raised and debated provides greater insight into them.”

        I have a different view.

        The exchanges (“debates”) rarely convince anyone.

        Mainly their purpose is self confirmation or promotion of certain concepts.

        Notice how the conversation here focuses on SpaceX, with little mention of ULS or Orbital/ATK. In the real world, there are a number of launch providers in a number of countries.

        DoD/NRO needs and interests are different than those of manned space flight enthusiasts, whether of the Moon or Mars types.

        The main purpose here of course is to publicize the “issues” our host finds important. Its his bbs, and that is fair.

        Reactions like those to Michael’s legal points are common.

        Occasionally there will be exchanges of technical or market information of interest. (RGO, pathfinder) But many manned space flight “enthusiasts” will seldom allow facts to interfere with their fantasies, and you will be damned if you do.

        Me, I am pleased that the US has a low cost launch provider for its sat makers, and hope that Orbital’s engineers will be able to salvage some part of the $8 billion Ares 1 fiasco.

        I also view the ARM as being the best and most viable of the choices left by that fiasco.

        In any case, its nice to see engineers employed rather than accountants and lawyers.

        • E.P. Grondine: I also view the ARM as being the best and most viable of the choices left by that fiasco.

          Maybe, but the real issue is cost. If we are going to waste half of our human space budget on SLS and (somewhat less wasteful, but still expensive) Orion, it’s the mission we can afford. Whatever the NRC thinks, NASA is extremely unlikely to get the kinds of money lunar missions using the SLS will cost. (Lunar missions using something like Golden Spike’s ideas are a different story, but that does not appear to be on the table, and, unfortunately, the fact that they could not come close to their crowdfunding goal is telling from a public interest point-of-view.)

          — Donald

        • Neil

          Hi EP.
          No I don’t see ARM as useful however my view is different to your’s in that I want NASA to develop capability for hsf, for Earth science and for robotic exploration beo.
          I don’t believe that trying to protect the Earth from a ELE is a worthwhile exercise. If it’s life on Earth’s fate to end, then so be it. Personally I don’t see mankind as a worthy lifeform for inheriting the Universe anyway but hey, that’s just my opinion.

          • Niel: I don’t see mankind as a worthy lifeform for inheriting the Universe

            No lifeform is going to inherit the Universe, unless it be something like a microbe that can be distributed by light pressure. I’ll settle for a realistic goal of continuing our 10,000 year physical exploration of Earth into the diverse worlds of the Solar System, and maybe some of the nearby stars.

            — Donald

  • E.P. Grondine

    “One of these days (not today) I’ll learn to ignore these boards.”

    Apparently, you told some people something that they did not want to hear.

  • getitdoneinspace

    Prior to this 5 yr block buy, the USAF was directed to aggressively seek competition in EELV procurement. I find it very strange that the USAF sought to enter into a 5 yr commitment at the very beginning of such a transitional period. I hope the court, the US Congress and the American people find that to be obvious.

    • Jim Nobles

      I also hope that, within the law, the judge finds a reason to break open the block buy package. Even though it might be wrapped up very nicely with a splendid legal bow it contains a lot of dark ugliness that, for the good of the American people, deserves to be exposed to close examination in the full light of day.

      That’s my opinion.

      • Dick Eagleson

        What the judge has to say will be interesting, but not, I think, ultimately dispositive of the issue, especially if he rules in favor of the Air Force. If no more RD-180’s show up on ULA’s doorstep by, say, New Years Day, the Air Force, NRO and DoD will have to start disassembling the block buy to protect their own launch manifests going forward or acquiesce when Congress does it for them. When it’s sufficiently clear to Congress that Atlas V is dead, they’ll instruct the USAF to quit playing chicken and line up a real launch provider to cover all those Atlas V missions ULA won’t ever be able to execute.

        • Jim Nobles

          What I would hope that NRO and DoD and Congress would understand is that the Atlas V’s “reliability” was always an illusion. The system has demonstrated adequate mechanical reliability but it’s dependence on a foreign sourced critical component always made it unreliable as a DoD and NRO launch solution.

          This situation should never have allowed to occur. It is the tensions between the U.S.A. and Russia that brought the situation to our attention but the situation has existed since the decision was made to not domestically source and engine.

          All the talk about the Atlas V’s reliability was a red-herring. At least for national security launches.

          • MORE REALITY

            It’s more reliable than the Falcon 9.

            • Dick Eagleson

              Perhaps you would like to explain what you mean by that. Falcon 9 has never failed to place its primary payload in the correct orbit. Atlas V failed to do so on its second milsat launch back in 2007. A pair of NRO ocean surveillance birds wound up in lower orbits than intended. They had to expend most of their station-keeping fuel to reach correct orbits and this shortened their service lives. I call bullshit.

        • Michael J. Listner

          With the block buy signed it is likely that RD-180s were ordered to fulfill the block buy contract, which the Russians will fulfill regardless of the rhetoric. I am actually more concerned about Congress effectively making the use of the RD-180 illegal, which would effectively be delaying critical launches just to make a political point.

          • Dick Eagleson

            It’s more than just “likely” RD-180’s were ordered to fulfill the block buy. ULA ordered 100 RD-180’s in their own “block buy” long ago and were still taking deliveries under this agreement until Putin decided he wanted to take Ukraine back. You’re a lawyer who practices in the U.S. so I guess I can forgive your reflexive genuflection at the sacred altar of contracts, but you must understand that the alleged sanctity of contract plays no part in Russian actions. They have routinely interrupted and even canceled energy shipments to clients who had contracted for them to advance political objectives. Loss of revenue never seems to be much of a consideration in these decisions and many of these have involved far larger revenues than the RD-180 was bringing in. There is no reason to believe that ULA is ever going to see a single additional Rd-180 no matter what has been contracted for.

            • Michael J. Listner

              I don’t need nor want your forgiveness. Now as to address your misunderstandings:

              1) Deliveries of RD-180s have not been halted because of the Crimea/Ukraine situation despite rhetoric from both Rogozin and certain members of Congress. I have no doubt that ULA has been in direct communications with Energomash to obtain assurances that RD-180 deliveries will continue. That being said, ULA has wisely begun the process of seeking a alternative, which is still about five years down the road.

              2) The Russian space industry is not the energy industry. It is substantially cash poor and the source of hard currency is much needed to keep their engineers employed even if they are not making a profit. Money talks louder than propaganda thus despite Rogozin’s lamentations that RD-180s being used for national security launches, he knows that where the major source of revenue is for the RD-180. He will not lightly kill the goose that is laying golden eggs for the Russian space agency anymore than he will cancel the contracts for taxi rides to the ISS.

              3) Comparing one sector of Russian industry with another does not work. Most industry in Russia, including the space industry, is owned partially by the government and each sector operators as its own fiefdom in a feudal society and all the politics and maneuvering that go along with it.

              • Dick Eagleson

                Re 1): ULA can call Energomash all it wants. Energomash might even tell ULA what it thinks ULA wants to hear. But Russia is an autocracy. Putin is the autocrat and Rogozin is his flunky. I’m unaware that Putin has seen fit to publicly contradict Rogozin about RD-180’s.

                ULA’s sudden decision to witness for Jesus on U.S.-sourced engines is pointless. If no more RD-180’s arrive during the rest of this year – and there are some due under the original contract – I think we can safely write finis to the imported RD-180 and the Atlas V it powers. ULA will need a new vehicle to go with any new engine and that will take at least as long for them to design as will a new engine. They haven’t got that much time. Atlas V was over half of their business. They’ll starve long before they can gin up a replacement.

                Re 3): The Russian space industry is being rapidly re-Sovietized as a 100% state-owned monolithic entity.

                Re 2): It’ll do what Putin wants in return for the big budget increases he has promised. What Putin wants is “national greatness” stuff. He doesn’t give a rat’s ass about commercial satellite launches or about the relative pittance the RD-180 contract brings in. A man who has been willing to forgo billions in energy revenues to throw his weight around with his neighbors isn’t going to hesitate to blow off a few measly million from an engine contract, especially if the minor loss is compensated for by putting another thumb in the eye of the United States. The only thing you can trust a Russian to do in the long term is to be a Russian.

          • Jim Nobles

            The quicker the use of foreign supply of critical assets is disallowed the better off we will be. Right now the RD-180 can only be used against us. When I say the better off we will be I mean “we” the United States, not the company ULA. They and their masters made their bed they can lie in it.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      Forget congressional direction to seek competition. USAF’s own analysis argued that they shouldn’t enter into this long of a block buy.

  • The Air Force has actually given a clear example, with timeline, of how their contracting methods discourage competition, innovation and low costs.

    Having shown it’s hand, USAF lays bare many of the “legal” corruptions to a launch procurement system that fails the taxpayer & does a disservice to what could be a more capable arm.

    2012 to 2017 ULA locked up an expensive, low-launch-rate, dividend maker on Russian rockets.

    Woo Hoo for the US Air Force!!

  • Fred Willett

    The AF time line is not the whole story.
    The under secretary for acquisitions who’s name I forget. has made over the last few years some telling statements which clearly SpaceX has relied on and should have been given more weight (in SpaceX’s opinion) by the procurement office. After all (the under secretary) he is their boss.
    I can’t recall the exact quotes and dates off the top of my head but they amount to the following:
    1/ “Launch costs are too high. We need to encourage competition.”
    2/ “Pending arrival of new launch providers avoid big block buys.”
    3/ “New entrants can compete after 3 launches but before certification.”
    point 1/ above should be sufficient grounds to challenge the block buy.
    Even if the AF procurement office dotted all their i’s and crossed all their t’s there is still the question of if they should have taken into account the expressed wishes of departmental leaders.
    And now, it’s over to the judge.

    • Michael J. Listner

      Therein lies a possible reprieve for Space X. If Space X can show the USAF prevented them from providing a capability statement or filing a protest to the RFPs once they were issued to ULA, then they may be able to argue that it does have standing to protest the block buy.

  • If the case is dismissed what happens to the USAF budget for 36 cores that relied to a large extent on the cost of the Atlas V which is less expensive than the Delta IV?
    What happens to launch schedules, as my understanding is that the Delta IV LV requires more lead time.
    Is the USAF mission; “Assured Access to Space” which the EELV program was designed to serve, not compromised under the structure of the original block buy?
    We have 15 Atlas V engines in country. The reason we have two launch vehicles, according to my understanding, is in case one is grounded for technical reasons…but Atlas V can’t lift all the payloads Delta IV can, so perhaps my understanding of the “Assured Access to Space” mission is not correct.

    Regardless if the case is dismissed or not DOD/NRO needs fully redundant launch capabilities based upon independent designs and hopefully Congress recognizes the weak links in the USAF EELV procurement strategy and does something to fix it.

    • E.P. Grondine

      Hi Sean –

      First off, you have to ask why a 20 year old engine design by Glushko and his team is state of the art, when the US has very good propulsion engineers.

      IMO, the answer to that lies in the earlier maneuvers by ATK promoting the Ares 1, the result of which is that everything else got trashed, except SpaceX, who they could not stop.

      • Neil

        Interesting insight. I hadn’t actually put that together.

      • Michael J. Listner

        It may be a 20 year design, but it is a very good engine. The engineering that goes into the RD-180 and the NK-33 is amazing. When U.S. propulsion engineers got a look at the NK-33 they were humbled at the ingenuity and daring that went into the design. I used to wave the flag a lot too about Russian rocket engines, but after I looked beyond the flag and looked at the engineering I changed my viewpoint. A colleague and I were discussing this recently and he made a very interesting statement in that when it comes to satellites the United States has a great technical edge. When it comes to rocket engines, however, the Russians hold the aces in that game.

        The one misstep is that when the RD-180 was chosen to power Atlas V the intention was to build the engine domestically. However, the ball was dropped and the funding was not allocated to make it happen.

        • E.P. Grondine

          Hi Mike –

          “The one misstep is that when the RD-180 was chosen to power Atlas V the intention was to build the engine domestically. However, the ball was dropped and the funding was not allocated to make it happen.”

          Now you have to ask exactly how and why that happened.

          • Michael J. Listner

            I concur. Someone rolled the dice that there would be no political impediment to continued shipments of RD-180s from Russian. While I continue to believe there will be no interruption of RD-180s, the threat of an interruption is not out of the realm of possibility. General Shelton practically admitted that the ball was dropped and I am guessing that was a ULA-USAF decision or lack thereof.

    • Dick Eagleson

      All good questions, Sean. As we can pretty well write off the ULA stooges who post here as potential sources of answers, I’ll take a whack at your first one myself.

      What happens to the USAF budget for 36 cores that relied to a large extent on the cost of the Atlas V which is less expensive than the Delta IV?

      Nothing good, I’m thinking. The Delta IV is more expensive and has less configuration flexibility than the Atlas V and has less lift capacity for any given degree of solid booster augmentation. Delta IV’s can launch without strap-ons or with either two or four strap-ons. Atlas V’s can launch without strap-ons or with anywhere from one to five strap-ons. The main engine of the Atlas V, the problematical RD-180, produces about 200,000 more pounds of thrust than does the RS-68 main engine of the Delta IV. The strap-ons for the Atlas V produce 100,000 more pounds of thrust each than the Delta IV’s strap-ons, furthering the gap between Atlas V and Delta IV (non-Heavy) capabilities.

      By far the most commonly built Delta IV variant – just under half of the total ever built – has been the one with a 4-meter payload shroud and two strap-on boosters. The variant with four strap-on boosters has only a modest increment of lifting capacity because it only comes – for now – with a 5-meter payload shroud which is, evidently, quite a bit heavier. The most common configuration of the Atlas V – also just under half the total ever built – is the one with no strap-on solids and a 4-meter payload shroud. It looks to me like the easiest way for ULA to make a Delta IV capable of carrying more payload – short of using the Heavy – is to produce a thus far unavailable model that uses four strap-ons in combination with the 4-meter payload shroud. Assuming payloads small enough to fit, such a configuration would stand in for Atlas V’s with matching 4-meter payload shrouds and up to two strap-ons for LEO missions and up to three strap-ons for GTO missions. For a payload requiring a 5-meter shroud, the Delta IV – unless it’s a Heavy – can only manage to match an Atlas V with a single strap-on for LEO missions or with a pair of strap-ons for GTO missions. The upper end of the Atlas V line – with either 4- or 5-meter payload shrouds – can only be matched, within the Delta IV line, by the Heavy.

      So, bottom line: Greater reliance on Delta IV means ordering a lot more strap-on solid boosters than would likely be required for equivalent payloads launched on Atlas V’s. It also probably means stepping all that long, expensive way up to a Delta IV Heavy to launch at least one or two, and conceivably more, payloads that are too heavy for any other variant of the Delta IV and for which there are not sufficient engines remaining to launch on one of the heavier variants of the Atlas V. Everywhere you look, there’s more expense to either be eaten or re-negotiated by ULA. Opening the block buy to such economic adjustments would, I suspect, pretty much doom it.

      That’s exactly what I expect to happen, and fairly soon too.


        This coming from a Space X stooge?

        • Dick Eagleson

          This coming from a SpaceX admirer. But it’s analysis, not stoogery. You have, as predicted, provided no answers to any of Sean’s pointed questions. I answered one of them using publicly available information about the Delta IV and Atlas V. If you find fault with any part of my analysis, please feel free to make specific criticisms. If all you have to offer is more pointless ad hominem, save your keystrokes. Nobody but your fellow ULA trolls would be interested.

          • Byeman

            Re: “SpaceX Admirer”. More like SpaceX troll. Especially, when posting blatantly libel statements like below.
            “ULA has demonstrated that it is willing to pay off a civilian USAF procurement official with a cushy job at a major supplier”
            You are completely clueless on the RD-180 situation. Your “admiration” blinds you from reality.

            • Dick Eagleson

              U.S. law recognizes truth as a complete defense against libel charges. The USAF official signed off on the block buy, promptly retired from the Air Force and nearly as promptly showed up on the payroll of a major ULA supplier. I could also add that at least one other USAF official signed off on a waiver of the usual one-year embargo period required between leaving government employment and signing on with a company one used to deal with as part of one’s government job. Given that the gentleman in question doesn’t actually work for ULA, that was probably the barracks lawyer basis for both the waiver and his pell-mell re-employment. Like the block buy itself, it may be within the technical letter of the law, but it’s still an obviously corrupt deal and I do not hesitate to call a spade a goddamned shovel.

              As to the RD-180 situation, I have said nothing ULA has not publicly acknowledged about their current situation. ULA says it has 15 RD-180’s in inventory; I say ULA has 15 RD-180’s in inventory. Where we differ is our opinions of likely future scenarios. ULA thinks it’s going to get more RD-180’s from Russia. I don’t. There is a shipment due in, I believe, less than 90 days. Thus, it won’t be long before we know who is right and who is wrong about this matter. If more RD-180’s arrive, I will humbly acknowledge error. If they don’t, I will feel free to assume vindication on my stated belief that ULA has seen the last RD-180 it’s ever going to see from Russia and that the Atlas V is, perforce, all but dead as a future factor in any part of the launch services market.

              • Byeman

                Guess what Dick (how appropriate), you don’t have truth on your side and you are no better than the goddamned supermarket rags. As for the the RD-180, you will be shown as an clueless idiot who doesn’t know what he is talking about.

              • Dick Eagleson

                We shall, indeed, see. I am content to await developments. If it makes you feel better to call me names in the meantime, feel free. The first half of 2014 hasn’t been too good for mindless defenders of the aerospace status quo; the second half shows every sign of being worse. If any part of your employment or financial future is tied to ULA, I can hardly blame you for being nervous in the service.

    • Michael J. Listner

      Nothing happens, unless Congress sticks its nose into the mix and decides to nullify the contract. The RD-180s needed to power the Atlas V cores are either available, have been ordered or will be made available by prioritizing national security launches from available reserves.

      To the extent that ULA has placed orders for the necessary RD-180s USAF may have to compensate ULA if Congress decides to forbid the use of RD-180 on any of the launches contracted under the block buy. If Congress forbids the use of RD-180 then ULA will have to cancel all orders for RD-180, including those ordered for the block buy and compensate the Russians for breach of contract with some sort of liquidated damages. ULA may then seek compensation from USAF for compensation as well.

      My take is that Congress will not touch this. There is a lot of rhetoric coming from some members, most notably Senator McCain, but he doesn’t have the political juice he once did to derail this like he did KC-X nor get through language in a defense authorization to ban the use of the RD-180. This could change if the Republicans regain control of the Senate in 2014, but as it stands now he doesn’t have the clout given his minority status and given that he is effectively a lame-duck Senator this being his last term.

      The block buy will stand and Space X will be certified to compete for national security launches starting in FY2016, which will force ULA to reconsider their prices. The other wild card here is Orbital Sciences. Their merger with ATK has made them a force to considered as both companies on their own have significant experience as defense contractors. Space X would be wise to consider to learn to work within the rules instead of trying to change the rules of the game to the way they think they should be.

      • Jim Nobles

        Space X would be wise to consider to learn to work within the rules instead of trying to change the rules of the game to the way they think they should be.

        To me this isn’t about trying to change the rules as much as it is about exposing corruption and relieving the American taxpayer from some of the burdens stemming from that corruption.

        It’s about a company that’s taken billions of dollars of taxpayer monies and then not investing its profits in an engine whose supply would be reliable.

        It’s about a company that engineered a “block buy” contract with their sympathizers in the military; a contract that would cut out potential competitors for years to come and still overcharge the taxpayers by billions or dollars.

        It’s about a corrupt oversight process that allowed this situation to occur and a corrupt system that fights to keep it in place.

        I think it should be the hope of any decent American that this corruption be stopped now and broken up for all to judge. It is my most sincere hope that the Judge in this case finds some way to stop this awful thing and expose those involved and their machinations to full public scrutiny.

        We are America and we are better than this.

        • Michael J. Listner

          What corruption?

          Not investing profits into a new engine? That’s not a crime or evidence of corruption?

          Taking the initiative and proposing the block buy? Some, including myself, say that was shrewd business. If being shrewd equates to being corrupt then a lot of businesses are guilty. ULA may have offered the “block buy”, but USAF accepted the idea. Granted, USAF considered it might not be the smart thing to do, but they did it. That doesn’t make it criminal or corrupt.

          A corrupt oversight process? Is it or do you only assert that because your own knowledge or lack thereof of the acquisition process leads you to the conclusion that it is corrupt.

          • Jim Nobles

            I think any reasonable human being would take a look at this entire situation and suspect corruption involving billions of dollars of taxpayer money.

            I think you may have been in the lawyer business too long. You seem to have a strong grasp on the differences between legal and illegal but it looks like, along the way, you lost the ability to tell right from wrong.

            In the past there were things in our system of government that were legal but not right. I think we’re involved in that situation here.

            I hope the block buy gets thrown down and broken open like an over-ripe melon and everyone gets a chance to examine the contents and decides for themselves if it was right or wrong.

            • Michael J. Listner

              Several choice comments come to mind in response to your comments, especially your comment that I lost the ability to tell right from wrong. In deference to the moderator I will refrain.

              • Dick Eagleson

                While I don’t express it in quite the same outraged maidenly virtue fashion as Mr. Nobles, there is certainly corruption involved in the ULA-USAF block buy deal and it has nothing to do with the sourcing of engines. See my 8:07 PM comment above for an outline of the details.

                What we have here is a pretty much simon-pure example of what economists refer to as “regulatory capture” – the tendency, over time, for any regulatory bureaucracy to increasingly serve the interests of the parties it nominally regulates rather than any defensible definition of the “public interest” one may formulate. This is a pretty standard idea in public choice economics.

                I should note that the whole field of public choice economics is pretty much anathema to the Democratic Party and organized American leftism generally, because it calls into question the possibility of accomplishing most of their favored objectives via their usually favored means – setting up government bureaucracies to regulate practically everything.

                I don’t know what your politics are. Given that you are a lawyer, the odds overwhelmingly favor you being a progressive Democrat. On the other hand, you have evidenced an ability to understand engineering-related, as opposed to merely legal – arguments so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and not necessarily assume you are one of those annoying members of your profession who have hopelessly confused the current norms of American legal procedure with the physical laws of the universe.

                Part of the process of regulatory capture is for the regulators to incrementally adjust “the rules” so as to allow the regulated to increasingly do what the regulators were initially set up to keep them from doing. That includes erecting barriers to competition by would-be new entrants – EELV “certification” anybody? – and even plain old garden variety corrupt practices such as trading favors while in office for future employment opportunities.

                The letter of the law says the company granted the favor can’t employ the grantor upon his or her leaving office. But a pliable subcontractor can do so and defeat the spirit of the law while observing its letter. Hence, Mr. Nobles’s indelicate peroration about legal and illegal not having any necessarily one-to-one mapping relationship to right and wrong.

                The point is that high-minded admonitions to “follow the rules” don’t mean much when the “rules” in question have been custom-built by established suppliers specifically to keep everyone else out of their carefully walled-off rice bowls. ULA has rigged “the rules” to favor its interests. SpaceX is simply attempting to use legal process and political process to cancel ULA’s incumbency advantages. ULA, having long since elected to “compete” by rigging the rules rather than by providing a superior value proposition hasn’t really got any basis for being outraged if all SpaceX manages to do is beat them at their chosen game.

                In fairness, SpaceX’s prospects wouldn’t be nearly so bright were it not for the entirely fortuitous – and unintended – assistance they are getting from the renewedly aggressive Russians. Putin may, ironically, wind up being a bit of a reform politician, just not in Russia. Still, if luck is, as some say, the intersection of preparation and opportunity, SpaceX is lucky too. And ULA is not.

      • Dick Eagleson

        ULA has 15 RD-180’s currently in-hand. There are three Atlas V missions scheduled to launch in the next 75 days. You, for reasons completely incomprehensible to me, seem to think all is hunky-dory with the RD-180 supply chain situation. I think the Russians have bent ULA over a barrel and crammed a big dry corncob up their corporate poop chute; the 15 RD-180’s ULA currently has are all they’re ever going to get. I believe the next delivery of RD-180’s expected under the erstwhile contract with the Russians is due sometime within the same 75-day interval ULA currently expects to launch these three Atlas V’s. It will be interesting to see how events actually unfold.

        Only one of the three upcoming missions is a national security payload and that is a GPS bird, a relatively small and light payload that could afford being delayed and launched later on another type of booster. It is also the first of the three scheduled missions I referred to, less than 30 days out. The others are a commercial imaging bird and a NASA science mission. None of these missions should fly if 15 more Atlas V’s is all we’re ever going to have. If Congress or the military plan to commandeer and ration Atlas V’s they’d best be getting about it quickly or within 75 days the RD-180 engine inventory will be reduced by another 20%.

        I don’t know if the GPS mission is one of those that would count against the block buy, but I suspect it isn’t. The other two missions I referenced are certainly not part of the block buy. So if I turn out to be right, and no more RD-180’s show up on ULA’s doorstep, then ULA is left with a dozen engines to stretch over a block buy that covers 36 cores and, I believe, 28 missions. Quite a lot of bread. Not too much butter. As I’ve noted in other comments, ULA could substitute Delta IV’s for some of the Atlas V’s they aren’t likely to be able to provide, but that would be more expensive for them to do, it’s not obvious they could keep to previously expected launch schedules and any effort to re-open the compensation parts of the block buy would provide SpaceX with a perfect legal rationale to void the whole thing.

        Congress getting involved in any way, and even SpaceX’s lawsuit, would be pretty much sideshow attractions as the act in the big top will be dictated by the actions – or inactions as the case may be – of Russia.

        Stay tuned, it’s going to be an interesting Summer.

        • Mader Levap

          What the hell you are talking about?

          Protip: sanction policy is a little more involved than few Twitters sent by russian thug with unhealthy affection to trampolines. Even in Russia.

          Right now, there are no actual Russian sanctions involving rocket engines and your claims are just fantasy.

          • Dick Eagleson

            Russia is an autocracy. What the autocrats say, goes. Mr. Rogozin, a junior flunky-type autocrat who seems to hold, among others, the portfolio of Tweeer-in-Chief for the Russian governnment, has said we’re not getting any more RD-180’s. The head autocrat, Gospodin Putin, has not seen fit to publicly contradict his stooge. I’m inclined to take them at their word. As ULA is said to be expecting at least two more modest shipments of RD-180’s in the next five months, we’ll know whose views are “fantasy” fairly soon I’d say. I like my chances on this one.

      • Dick Eagleson

        A couple of additional observations about matters in your final paragraph:

        Orbital-ATK is indeed an interesting supporting player in all this. Unfortunately for ULA, it’s no longer obvious that they’re an unconflicted ally. If ULA is forced to repot some of the block buy missions from Atlas V’s it can no longer build onto Delta IV’s that it can, Orbital-ATK will be a winner as they make the GEM-60 strap-on solid boosters used by medium configurations of the Delta IV. But Orbital has designs on the EELV launch market independent of SpaceX’s effort to break in. They want to compete a re-engined Antares against Falcon 9 and the low-end Delta IV and are looking on with considerable interest as SpaceX makes its way through the certification process. They may well be able to carry this off in a year or two. So Orbital-ATK both sells to ULA and wants to compete directly with them for launch services business. It looks to me as though they stand to benefit whether the block buy stands or falls, but I suspect they would benefit more if it falls.

        As to the admonition to SpaceX about “playing by the rules”, the “rules” are corrupt, dysfunctional, unconscionably slanted toward established suppliers and unaffordable going forward. Someone badly needs to light a fire and feed the entire FAR rulebook into it. SpaceX seem, by dint of business necessity, to have appointed themselves to strike the match and kindle the blaze. Good for them.

  • E.P. Grondine

    Hi Dick, Mike –

    Both of your analysis are excellent.

    While Mike touches on it, IMO neither of you fully consider DoD needs for solid propellants in your analysis.

    You can be sure that none of the ranking members do so.

  • Aerospace Engineer

    SpaceX really ought to be focussing their energies on getting the Falcon 9 launch rate greater than 2 or 3 a year.

    • Dick Eagleson

      One more time for the slow learners in the class. SpaceX has launched four Falcon 9v1.1’s in the last nine months. They’ve got four more scheduled between now and September 2014. Even if only half of these get off the ground, that’ll be six missions in a year. If they all get off before Sept. 29, 2014, that’ll be eight missions in a year.

  • Aerospace Engineer

    No way they’ll get 4 more missions done by September 2014. And even if they get 6 done in a one year interval, it still ain’t a good enough launch rate and well below their own lofty predictions.

    • Dick Eagleson

      Check back with me at the end of September, AE. SpaceX’s initial launch date for Orbcomm OG2 was May 10, only 22 days after launching the CRS-3 mission from the same Canaveral pad. SpaceX didn’t manage a launch on May 10th, but they did manage a turnaround of the pad by that time. That’s at least twice as fast as ULA has ever turned around a pad. It is, therefore, entirely possible that SpaceX may get four more missions off before Sept. 30. Even if they don’t manage four, the odds are considerably better that they will manage three or two. Even as things stand, Falcon 9 took less than four years to reach its current mark of nine missions launched. Atlas V took four and a half years to reach nine launches. Delta IV took over six years.

  • Byeman

    “Falcon 9 took less than four years to reach its current mark of nine missions launched. Atlas V took four and a half years to reach nine launches. Delta IV took over six years.”

    Meaningless stats, since you conveniently forgot the the 11 Atlas II & III and 4 Titan IV’s for Atlas V and more than 30 Delta II’s during the same timeframes. Also, there weren’t the payloads for the EELV’s at the time

    • Dick Eagleson

      I wasn’t forgetting anything. Just for the record it was 5 Titan IV’s, 13 Atlas II’s and III’s and 51 Delta II’s between the 2002 debuts of Atlas V and Delta IV and the present for ULA and its predecessor companies. I was simply pointing out that the Falcon 9 is getting off to a faster start than the two incumbent EELV’s. The Falcon’s advantage isn’t due to a dearth of commercial payloads a decade or so back either. Atlas V actually carried 8 commercial birds on its first 9 missions; more than has Falcon 9. Delta IV, to be sure, was carrying milsats on 8 of its first 9 missions; pretty much a mirror image of its future stablemate’s early manifest.

      As to SpaceX’s total launch missions in a year’s time vs. ULA’s, we can either use the reference year as Sept. 29, 2013 to Sept. 29, 2014 or Jan. 1, 2014 to Jan. 1, 2015 as you prefer. The final numbers for both intervals are incomplete, but seem highly likely to be at least six each, only slightly less probable to be seven or eight each and, particularly for the Jan.-to-Jan. case, quite conceivably more.

      It’s true that ULA and its parent companies used to launch a lot of rockets, but those launches were in more flush times for both NASA and the DoD. Since 2002, the year both Atlas V and Delta IV debuted, ULA has launched a low of 7 missions on all vehicle types then in service (2008) and a maximum of 18 (2003) in any given calendar year. The mean number of ULA missions per calendar year over this interval has been 11.

      The likelihood of SpaceX doing 11 missions in Calendar 2014 now seems remote. But 7 looks very doable and they might manage as many as 9. Not too long ago I would have given long odds against SpaceX being able to beat ULA in total missions per year for awhile yet, but the RD-180 jam-up now makes it look increasingly likely that 2015 will be the year that happens. Neither company probably gets to 18 missions for the 2015 calendar year. ULA has to try putting the production pedal to the metal on Delta IV and ration Atlas V’s. SpaceX has to get both its production rate of F9v1.1 cores up and refine its ground operations. But SpaceX has more opportunities as it brings LC-39A back into service sometime after mid-2015. Total SpaceX mission count for 2015 will also be boosted if they manage to get a Falcon 9R 1st stage back to a feet-dry landing any time in late 2014 or early 2015 and reuse it.

  • Byeman

    “I was simply pointing out that the Falcon 9 is getting off to a faster start than the two incumbent EELV’”
    Again, which is meaningless since the legacy vehicles were still flying, there was no need for a faster start.

    “ULA has to try putting the production pedal to the metal on Delta IV and ration Atlas V’s.”
    Untrue, it has no reason to change its manifest mix. There is no RD-180 “jam”, that is only fiction in the mind’s of SpaceX fanbois.

    • Dick Eagleson

      It seems we’ll know who’s right about the RD-180 in pretty short order. I believe ULA is counting on taking delivery of two more shipments between now and year’s end. If either or both fail to appear, I believe that will signal “game over” for Atlas V.

      Ironically, the current reverses Putin is suffering in Ukraine may make it even less likely that any more RD-180’s will be forthcoming. If Putin’s stooges in Ukraine continue to get their asses kicked, Putin can either take it and grin – in which case he’s going to be even more eager to find cheap ways to count coup on the United States – or he can send in the Russian regulars and abandon the fiction that the current unrest is all the work of grassroots “oppressed” Russians. In that case, even the feckless Obama administration will be forced to tighten and broaden sanctions and Russia will be looking to hit back. Cutting off RD-180’s is a minor financial hit to Russia, but a major pain in the ass to the U.S. – just the kind of trade the Russians are always eager to make. Neither outcome in Ukraine looks good for continued RD-180 availability.

      I can sort of understand why Michael Listener, a lawyer, might think the current RD-180 situation is salvageable. Lawyers are all about horsetrading and settling things quietly in back rooms. He probably sincerely believes there’s still some kind of such deal possible. I don’t share his cynical optimism. The Russians are playing a different game for different stakes.

      I know nothing about you so I can’t speculate meaningfully about why you seem to share Mr. Lisener’s – in my view – entirely unwarranted optimism about RD-180 shipments continuing so I’ll leave you to make your own explanation here if you care to.

      • Neil

        Yes I think you’re spot on Dick. “If either or both fail to appear, I believe that will signal “game over” for Atlas V.”

      • E,P, Grondine

        Hi Dick –

        “abandon the fiction that the current unrest is all the work of grassroots “oppressed” Russians.”

        Do you have a source for your assertion that it is a fiction?

        • Dick Eagleson

          That there are ethnically-Russian residents of Ukraine who would like to see at least their own parts of Ukraine returned to Russian sovereignty is not fictional. The idea that these people are justified in what amounts to insurrection and treason because of “oppression” is what is fictional. It isn’t even obvious that such people constitute a majority within their own communities. But they have certainly proven able to make a lot of trouble, at least for awhile. That’s especially so if aided and abetted by GRU and Spetznaz troops in civilian clothes coming over the Russian border. The fact that the Ukraine central government has been getting the upper hand in recent days is at least suggestive that the earlier aggressions and violence were perpetrated by fair-weather insurgents who are now melting away in the face of real opposition and an actual likelihood of having to face combat and not just photo-ops for pro-Russian media.

          As for links to representative coverage of matters along the Russia-Ukraine border, just put some search predicate like “Pro-Russian insurgents eastern Ukraine” into your favorite search engine.

  • Michael J. Listner

    And now Space News is reporting that ULA has filed a Motion to Dismiss.

  • ART

    Funny Dick,
    When you were describing “Progressive Democrat” evils, I was able to substitute “Right wing fascist nutjob” and agree with your every statement.
    It is quite amazing to note the steadfastness of the corporate wags posting here. Like arguing evolution with a Alabama baptist.
    Oh lawyers, financiers, insurance salesmen, preachers and sellers of crack cocaine! Fear the rise of the socially and business-capable Ubergeek! Your day has ended, and you know it not.
    I wonder if much of this current situation has to do with the fact that SpaceX has no staff mouthpiece? Naturally items of no import, high cost, high mass and no physical use are an anathema to the average hyperintelligent (typically liberal) Geek, but we geeks do have some Nerd-like tendencies toward naivety. In our cloisters of reason and mutual respect we often forget how the typical knuckle-dragging barbarian has a less broad view of who-all qualify as members of his tribe, and just how low they will drag others in a dogged attempt to stay on top.
    Seriously, the geeks are really starting to show their stuff, and under their own flags. Hopefully this means a way out for some of us. No more building Spaze Shittles as the only game in town if you want a job lighting rockets. You can get out from under the smelly ass of the industrial military complex heirs, and get your own product out…or sign up with some hard-hitting Geek Inc. and mercilessly torch the “competition”.
    It’s really nice to see someone that actually CREATES something put the screws to the Admin Drone Co.
    Must be horrible…that “average intelligence” thing. Well, worry not. Intelligence is actually not the best proven survival strategy. I mean, we haven’t been at it very long…you know, kinda like SpaceX.

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