Spaceflight Insider

Elon Musk / SpaceX files suit against U.S. Air Force – touts recovery of Falcon 9 first stage

SpaceX's Founder and CEO announced during a news conference held on April 25, 2014 that the company was suing the U.S. Air Force, Boeing and Lockheed-Martin due to the bidding practices of Department of Defense payloads. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

During an impromptu press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., SpaceX on Friday, April 25, CEO Elon Musk announced that his company is suing the United States Air Force in protest of an agreement the government has with United Launch Alliance (ULA ).

“This really doesn’t seem right to us, and we’ve tried every avenue to try to figure out ‘why is this the case,’ and to try to find other avenues beyond filing a protest,” Musk said. “This contract is costing U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars for no reason, and to add salt to the wound, the primary engine that’s used is a Russian engine.”

SpaceX founder Elon Musk. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

SpaceX founder, Elon Musk. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

ULA is a collaboration involving Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and currently is the sole corporation certified to launch military payloads. SpaceX is working at present towards being granted the same certification.

“The Air Force said we had to do three launches and we did,” Musk said. “Then they told us they’d done an uncompeted award to ULA. That’s wrong.”

Musk claimed ULA launches are about four times more expensive than those carried out by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX’s published rates are $60 million for a commercial Falcon 9 launch compared to an estimated $400 million for those flights carried out by ULA. Government-driven costs could potentially push SpaceX launches up to $100 million per launch, but even this increased rate would mean the government could possibly save up to $1 billion dollars a year.

“What we feel is that this is not right. That the national security launches should be put up for competition,” Musk said.

Musk and SpaceX claim they have tried every option possible before filing a protest against the U.S. Air Force. However, after the discovery of the government’s agreement to purchase 36 rocket booster cores from ULA which contain Russian components – Musk stated that he felt there was no other option. Due to recent strains on the relationship between Russia and the United States over the Ukraine, Musk stated: “this seems like the wrong time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kremlin.” The SpaceX CEO went on to emphasize he is not asking for the contracts to be awarded to his company, only for them to be opened to competition.

“With SpaceX, the government could generate at least $1B in savings annually, even under the most conservative estimates,” Musk said.

The suit was filed in the United States Court of Federal Claims (located in Washington, D.C.) which, among other things, handles claims against the federal government for alleged improprieties in federal contracts and bids / proposals relating to those contracts. SpaceX is currently the only launch service provider involved. however, Musk indicated that it is possible that other companies could later join the suit.

“We’re just protesting and saying these launches should be competed,” he said. “And if we compete and lose, that’s fine, but why were they not even competed?”

Musk met with President Barack Obama during the president's visit to Kennedy Space Center in 2010. Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

Musk with President Barack Obama at SLC 40 in 2010. Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

During an open United States Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense hearing held last month Musk testified that SpaceX could handle all of the U.S. Air Force’s payloads, “and more.” However, after five years of flying the Falcon 9 the company has only been able to conduct launches at the rate of about 1.8 times a year – this includes commercial payloads as well as those carried out on NASA’s behalf. By comparison ULA conducts launches at the rate of almost once a month – more than six times what SpaceX has demonstrated the capability of carrying out. It is unclear at this point if Musk’s testimony is based on estimates of what his company might be able to accomplish with the estimated influx of revenue from Department of Defense contracts.

United Launch Alliance is currently the sole service provider for Department of Defense contracts. Photo Credit: ULA

ULA is currently the sole service provider to launch Department of Defense missions. Photo Credit: ULA

Moreover, many SpaceX launches are delayed. The recent launch of the third operational flight carried out under the $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract that SpaceX has with NASA is a good example of this as it flew a year later than originally announced and was delayed at least ten times.

The U.S. Air Force has been reviewing the Falcon 9’s previous launches and has yet to issue formal certification. Musk and SpaceX have stated that they would like for the contract with ULA to be cancelled, and reevaluated in a few months after SpaceX has had the opportunity to be certified.

SpaceX is not alone in suing Colorado-based ULA. Late last year, Orbital Sciences Corporation sued ULA over a dispute stemming from the ability to acquire the Russian-built RD-180 rocket engine.

This is not SpaceX’s first lawsuit involving other space firms or critics. In 2005 SpaceX sued Boeing and Lockheed-Martin on a similar issue. In 2011 Musk sued Valador Inc. and the company’s Vice President, Joe Fragola, for criticizing the safety of the Falcon 9.

Not all of Musk’s statements today were of a legal nature – the SpaceX Founder and CEO stated that: “I’m happy to confirm we were able to do a soft landing in the Atlantic. All the data we received back indicates it did the soft landing and was in healthy condition after that.”

If confirmed, this is a historic event as it marks the first soft landing of a liquid-fueled rocket booster.

“The recovery operations were challenging,” said Musk, citing the rough seas that greeted the Falcon 9’s first stage upon landing. “It does look like the stage was subsequently destroyed by wave action.”

Two days went by before recovery ships were able to search for the booster. By that point only pieces remained including one of the landing legs and pieces of the rocket’s interstage assembly. The booster stage was able to transmit video of its descent and SpaceX has stated that a cleaned-up version will be released soon. The company’s goal is to make the Falcon rocket reusable and Musk has said he hopes to reduce the cost of sending payloads into space to one percent of the cost today.  By the year’s end, Musk hopes to have the Falcon capable of returning to a Florida-based landing pad. Another attempt at a soft landing in the Atlantic is to come and at that time the firm hopes to have a larger recovery vessel conduct recovery efforts. Musk also added that the next water landing attempt will take place much closer to land and that this should significantly aid the recovery effort.


Video courtesy of The National Press Club


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Reader Comments

The point you miss is that the version of Falcon 9 that SpaceX wants to compete is new and only now ready for a sustained flight rate. They have flown 4 times successfully in a half year and have a large number of cores stacked up and ready to fly out their manifest. We won’t know the real flight rate SpaceX is capable of until another year or so but it is already much much better than the last few.

What ULA is trying to do is short circuit the comparison between a mature Falcon 9 vehicle and their already robust stable of Atlas and Delta vehicles. This locking in is a reasonable attempt to keep their business with the Air Force against a very serious threat. I hope the Air Force reconsiders the contract while maintaining at least two sources of space access.

Hi Paul,
Good points – however – we didn’t miss anything. You fell into the trap that so many others do – in that you base your statements on what you want to happen or what might happen. The numbers cited – are based on current rates.
Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group

I don’t think I fell into a trap. I based my statement on what has happened – four flights within a half year. And I think it is reasonable to wait and see what will happen for the rest of this one. SpaceX needs to demonstrate a proper flight rate and the Air Force should hold off a bit on the block buy.

The numbers that you cite miss a very important trend and one that is a big threat to all other launch providers. SpaceX has figured out a big part of how to fly their (I would say revolutionary, not evolutionary) rocket. They now have more than 3,000 people churning these things out. It is not hard to imagine that, at their demonstrated progress, in two years SpaceX will be able to reliably launch at least GPS and other support satellites, if not the crucial SigInt, etc. types, and so help solve the DoD’s big problem of not much bang for too much buck.

Hi Paul,

We didn’t miss a trend we focused on current flight records. Having covered all but one (CASSIOPE) SpaceX launch – I agree with some of your points. As I stated in an earlier post we already adjusted SpaceX’s annual flight rates to match their current record & we expect that number to rise. However, we’ll only report on what the current rate of launch is – not what it might be on some future date or what proponents of a certain philosophy demand. What you deem as “missing a trend” – we see as proper reporting. If the past decade has shown anything – it’s that one shouldn’t predict the future. Today’s SpaceX could very well be tomorrow’s Constellation Program. Moreover, it’s not the role of the media to push a certain agenda.

Why did you choose the period of launch so selectively (six months)? Why not look at the width & breadth of the Falcon 9’s flight record? The implication is you’re doing so as to cast the situation in a more favorable light.

Your comment about missing a “trend” implies we should jump on the current bandwagon and just promote SpaceX. Sorry, we adhere to the rules of journalistic standards. If SpaceX does good & ULA bad? We report it – if the inverse is true? We report that as well.

In closing, we report on what has happened – not on what might/should/could happen. You focus on the points raised in this article that are critical & ignore the segments of the story that defend the valid points of SpaceX’s argument, highlight the company’s potential as well as its successes. It says a lot SpaceX proponents can’t tolerate criticism. I’d think the wiser course of action would be to correct the problems – rather than work so hard to silence those who raise them.

Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group

“Why did you choose the period of launch so selectively (six months)? Why not look at the width and breadth of the Falcon 9′s flight record? The implication is you’re doing so as to cast the situation in a more favorable light.”

Jason, I would presume he does this because the v1.1 is the vehicle in question, and it has only flown for ~6 months. The old Falcon 9 model is not the one being submitted for EELV certification.

Hi Lars,
Correct, the original F9 is no longer used with the current iteration up for the EELV contract. However, the flight record of the F9 needs to be viewed as a whole. Whereas enthusiasts can adapt the record to suit their own ends – journalists can’t. Should we only speak of the shuttle program post-Challenger or post-Columbia? After both tragedies numerous changes to the shuttle design were made – but we still have what went before those design changes were implemented. Fans of shuttle have to acknowledge Challenger & Columbia & SpaceX fans have to contend with the fact that the Falcon 9 has the current launch rate of 1.8 times annually.
Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group

Interesting that you didn’t mention to what extent SpaceX has ramped up its production line?

That currently a good portion of SpaceX’s Delays were due to Nasa issues either with conflicts with the ISS operstions or the very entity they are suing THE AIR FORCE and its range going down…

Also, you neglected to mention that ULA’s block but of 36 rockets is a 5 year contract and that they only have a 2 year supply of the Russian made engines leaving a potential 3 year gap that certainly doesn’t lend itself to assured access to space as mandated by Congress!

That the current UAL rate of $380 Million per launch as opposed to SpaxeX’s $90 million is baced on the less expensive partly Russian built Atlas V and if the rate was baced solely on the Delta 4 that rate would unarguably rise to over a Half a Billion per launch!

So much is left out that the bias is beyond obvious!

April 26, 2014

Journalists base their reports on what is record. To date, SpaceX has launched the F9 nine times in 5 years. There’s an article in drafts which had the rate at 1.6 times annually – it was amended to 1.8 after the last launch. As SpaceX increases their rate of launch – that number will be adjusted upward accordingly.

it’s telling you mention the single notable delay caused by something outside SpaceX’s control – but neglect to detail the 9-10 delays caused by issues internal to the company.

You claim the author “neglected” to mention certain facts. Your failure to mention ULA has stated it can produce the RD-180 on its own & has a stockpile of the engines makes you guilty of the same thing.

The article details several statistics arguing SpaceX’s case. You cherry-pick facts & assail the integrity of someone who detailed pros & cons of SpaceX’s statements. From the article above:

SpaceX’s published rates are $60 million for a commercial Falcon 9 launch compared to an estimated $400 million for those flights carried out by ULA. Government-driven costs could potentially push SpaceX launches up to $100 million per launch, but even this increased rate would mean the government could possibly save up to $1 billion dollars a year.

Where’s the “anti-SpaceX” bias there? The article also cites how SpaceX achieved another historic feat this week. Why didn’t you note this & the other positive points contained in the article? What the author did was worse than be biased – she was fair. While we understand journalistic integrity is lacking these days & some are confused about what the role of media is – that doesn’t excuse your comments.

The frequent use of all-caps, misspelled words, etc – point to someone too emotional to see or admit this.

The only bias revealed by your comment – was your own. You’ve essentially posted libel against this site, have “adapted” what the article says & have shown no interest in a civil debate. There are sites that tolerate that sort of thing – SpaceFlight Insider isn’t among them.
Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group

Elon does have a point. ULA is pretty expensive and SpaceX is pretty cheap. While ULA has a lot of experience under their belt as stated in the article, by splitting contracts between the two I’d imagine this would drive down the costs for the Air Force and SpaceX would gain a lot of new experience which would help the economy. But they’re getting a lot of foreign contracts as well if I’m not mistaken, so maybe they’ll take note.

Hi Jason,

You wrote “your comment about missing a “trend” implies we should jump on the current bandwagon and just promote SpaceX”. No such implication intended. You are Spaceflight *Insiders* and so can point out the nuances of the situation regarding the state of Falcon 9’s development instead of just dividing the number of years since the first F9 launch by the number of times it has launched and comparing that with ULA’s mature systems flight rate.

A better analysis would include the rate of change of the flight rate of what is SpaceX’s current “operational” F9 design. I’m sure you have followed Musk’s efforts since a decade and a half ago when he drove his F1 mockup to DC with a crazy plan. F9 v1.1 is the first target vehicle he has ended up with through all those failures, flights, and delays as SpaceX struggled to make the pieces work. So, finally, do they? Four flights in half a year of *that* vehicle, many more cores stacked up in Hawthorne waiting to fly a large backorder of payloads, more than 3,000 people that have to be paid – would point to a yes answer, not even a maybe.

So you should compare capabilities that exist now, not averaged over the long period of a rocket’s development. Based on SpaceX’s recent record and their stated plans, what would you predict will happen? It is pretty obvious what ULA predicts, hence their desire for a block buy. That is the story. No bandwagon.


Hi Paul,
I agree with most of your last post – except that we should focus primarily on their recent record & stated events. Sorry, Kistler & Rotary were bending metal & issuing statements too. So, I can see your point to a degree. SpaceX’s own recalcitrant nature is part of the problem. More of what you mention might be in our articles – if SpaceX were just a little more open. As it stands they aren’t & we focus on what is record. I hope that makes sense.

With all due respect. You’ve spent 2 days attempting to have us adapt how we write so we say nothing but positive things about SpaceX & have ignored the positive aspects already contained in the article. As I mentioned in my last reply to you – SpaceX “cheerleaders” want to hear nothing but good & can’t accept any real or perceived negatives. So, yes – Bandwagon. Please be honest.
Sincerely and with thanks, Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group

Okay, Jason.

I DO hope SpaceX succeeds. If they are not frauds, increase their flight rates, prove they can fly for much less than the market, our business will get much more interesting in the coming decades. If not, I worry that the dreams I had from Apollo will completely die. We’ll know soon.

“Moreover, many SpaceX launches are delayed.”

You know that most of all rocket launches, INCLUDING ULA’S, get delay… right?

Mr. Ortiz,
I left out that the difference between a ULA delay & a SpaceX delay – is substantial. Take the launch of CRS-3 – it was supposed to launch on April 3 of last year. Most ULA delays measure in the days or weeks (notable exceptions exist such as with the under-pressure event in a Delta IV’s upper stage that caused other Delta IV flights to be delayed).

Both start out the launch year with roughly 10-12 launches on their manifests. ULA launches roughly 90 percent of what’s on their manifest. SpaceX? 20-30 percent. ULA launches at the rate of once a month (in some cases more) – SpaceX – 2-3 times a year.

Your comment implies I’m unaware of what launches & when as well as what gets delayed & what does not. I’ve covered/attended almost every Florida launch (as well as one in Virginia) for the past 7 years. Please don’t speak to me like I’m ignorant, the tone of your comment was uncalled for – review our commenting rules.

Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group

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