Elon Musk / SpaceX files suit against U.S. Air Force – touts recovery of Falcon 9 first stage
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.”
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?”
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.
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
Heather Smith's fascination for space exploration – started at the tender age of twelve while she was on a sixth-grade field trip in Kenner, Louisiana, walking through a mock-up of the International Space Station and seeing the “space potty” (her terminology has progressed considerably since that time) – she realized at this point that her future lay in the stars. Smith has come to realize that very few people have noticed how much spaceflight technology has improved their lives. She has since dedicated herself to correcting this problem. Inspired by such classic literature as Anne Frank’s Diary, she has honed her writing skills and has signed on as The Spaceflight Group’s coordinator for the organization’s social media efforts.