Spaceflight Insider

The final (legal) frontier: Orbital drops lawsuit over RD-180 rocket engine

The next launch of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket with the Cygnus spacecraft has been pushed back to May 6, 2014. This will be the second operational mission for Cygnus under NASA's Commercial Resupply Services contract. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

In recent years NASA has moved to make private companies an even greater part of the aerospace landscape. Since 2012, Commercial Resupply Missions to the International Space Station (ISS) have carried goods and experiments from Earth to orbit on the backs of Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket as well as Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket. In the future, NASA hopes these partners will also carry astronauts to Earth orbit through its Commercial Crew Program. Yet with private industry inevitably comes private interest, as recent legal battles can attest.

In December of 2013, The Spaceflight Group reported that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) had dismissed a protest lodged by Blue Origin, LLC, allowing NASA to enter final negotiations to lease historic Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center to SpaceX. Blue Origin, owned by Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos, alleged that NASA’s selection process offered undue advantage to one or more of its competitors. In an announcement soon after SpaceX’s successful bid was made public, the company promised to make open access to LC-39A a feature of its lease. While the message may have been an attempt to ease concerns among competitors, Blue Origins GAO protest would serve as only one of many legal disputes surrounding increasingly lucrative NASA contracts.

The RD-180 is used on United Launch Alliance's Atlas V family of launch vehicles. Photo Credit: John Studwell / SpaceFlight Insider

The RD-180 is used on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V family of launch vehicles. Photo Credit: John Studwell / SpaceFlight Insider

In March of 2013 another legal protest was filed, this time a lawsuit lodged by Orbital Sciences Corp. with the Securities and Exchange Commission against United Launch Alliance (ULA) and the Russian-U.S. partner firm RD AMROSS. Orbital, which is looking for a long-term propulsion system for its Antares rocket, alleged that ULA and RD AMROSS were colluding to block its acquisition of the RD-180 engine currently in use on ULA’s Atlas V family of launch vehicles.

ULA is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, while RD AMROSS is a joint venture between Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne (now under UTC) and the Russian makers of the RD-180 NPO Energomash. The lawsuit, which claimed up to $1.5 billion in damages as a consequence of ULA and RD AMROSS’ alleged collusion, as well as the complicated layers of the companies involved, demonstrate the high stakes and high tensions the race for NASA contracts has engendered among some of aerospace’s leading contenders.

ULA and RD AMROSS had attempted late in 2013 to have U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema dismiss the suit, citing the availability of alternative engines on the market. The motion was dismissed and ULA/RD AMROSS were set for a trial. Three months into planned deliberations, it was announced earlier this month that the parties had come to an agreement to attempt a negotiated settlement outside of court. Orbital Sciences retains the right to re-file its lawsuit in the event negotiations prove unsatisfactory. However, given recent events, it is unclear if Orbital would want to use this engine on Antares.

The apparent settlement comes at a time when the RD-180 is the focal point of international controversy. The engine, produced in Russia, is viewed as a potential liability given Russia’s recent military intervention in the Ukraine.

As NASA Requests for Proposals (RFPs) continue to invite applications for leasing launch complexes and airfields, and delivering payloads and passengers to orbit, lawsuits and protests lodged with the GAO, SEC, and a host of federal and state regulatory governing bodies are likely to continue. Nevertheless, the transparency and good business practice such suits produce are welcome byproducts to a commercializing process that, at first glance, removes much of the above-the-fray aura Americans have come to expect of spaceflight.


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Since 2011 Joshua Tallis has served as the manager for research and analysis at an intelligence and security services provider in Washington, DC. Josh has co-authored several articles in the Journal of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security International with colleagues from the defense community. Previous work experience includes internships at the U.S. Congress and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Josh is also a PhD student in International Relations at the University of St Andrews' Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. He is a Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa and Special Honors graduate of The George Washington University where he received a BA in Middle East Studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs.

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