Blue Origin, ULA and Northrop Grumman weigh in on multibillion-dollar SpaceX rocket lawsuit

  • In Science
  • 2019-05-22 17:54:46Z
  • By Alan Boyle

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin space venture and subsidiaries of United Launch Alliance and Northrop Grumman are asking to intervene in a SpaceX lawsuit protesting $2.3 billion in rocket development awards to those three companies.

In a redacted version of the lawsuit, originally filed last Friday and made public today, SpaceX says it was unfairly passed over when the awards were made last October - and disparages the three companies' rocket projects.

According to the court documents, government lawyers informed Blue Origin and United Launch Services on Monday that they were interested parties in the lawsuit that SpaceX filed under seal last Friday. As a result, Blue Origin and United Launch Services filed motions in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to intervene in the suit on Tuesday. Northrop Grumman's subsidiary, Orbital ATK, followed suit today.

All three companies said neither SpaceX nor the government objected to their taking part. The judge in the case, Lydia Kay Griggsby, has not yet ruled on the motions.

Like United Launch Alliance, the United Launch Services subsidiary is a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. We've reached out to all the companies involved in the case for comment, and will update this report with anything we hear back.

Read motions filed by SpaceX, Blue Origin, United Launch Services and Orbital ATK.

SpaceX's bid protest had to do with a series of Air Force rocket development contracts that support the development of Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket, ULA's Vulcan rocket and Northrop Grumman's OmegA rocket for future national security launches.

The maximum allotments for work through 2024 are $500 million for Blue Origin, $967 million for ULA, and $791.6 million for Northrop Grumman (through the subsidiary formerly known as Orbital ATK). Each company was allotted $109 million from funds for fiscal year 2018.

SpaceX was left out of the contract awards. In an ethics report filed last month, the Pentagon's inspector general noted that the issue came up during a chat that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had with acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan last December. At the time, Musk reportedly acknowledged that SpaceX wrote a poor proposal that "missed the mark."

However, in the 78-page filing made public today, SpaceX says it was given short shrift by the Air Force and was more deserving of receiving an award than the other three companies. It said it could provide most of the services sought for national security launches at a significantly lower price, although the filing was redacted to conceal just how much lower.

SpaceX also said the three projects that received development funds were "paper" rockets that have not yet been built or flown. In contrast, SpaceX proposed using its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets for most of the launches being planned. It said it could handle the heaviest rockets on the proposed manifest, in the Air Force's Category C classification, with its Starship super-heavy-lift rocket starting in 2025.

According to the filing, the Air Force listed reasons why SpaceX was passed over, but SpaceX disputed the rationale. References to the specific reasons were blacked out in the redacted complaint. However, based on the context, those reasons may have had something to do with SpaceX's ability to meet schedules. SpaceX says that it has been working through an internal appeal process with the Air Force, which ended last month with a rejection of the appeal.

Now the Air Force is looking ahead to a new phase of the launch services program, which is aimed at following through on a congressional mandate to stop using rockets powered by Russian-built RD-180 engines. Such engines are used on ULA's Atlas 5 rocket, and so the Air Force has to come up with a replacement.

In the next phase of the program, the Air Force plans to fund only two rocket programs. Blue Origin executives have already voiced concerns that the Air Force's timetable puts their company at a disadvantage. Blue Origin's BE-4 rocket engine, which is still going through testing, is destined to power its own New Glenn rocket as well as ULA's Vulcan rocket. Northrop Grumman, meanwhile, has been selected to provide solid rocket boosters for the Vulcan.

SpaceX says the fact that it lost out in the first round of competition puts the company at a disadvantage going forward and would "impede Congress' mandate to maintain assured access to space." SpaceX also noted that all three of the companies that won funding are involved in ULA's Vulcan rocket program.

On the other side of the argument, Blue Origin, United Launch Services and Northrop Grumman's Orbital ATK subsidiary say they need to be in on the case because their interests aren't necessarily the same as the federal government's interests. Their concern is that a decision in SpaceX's favor may result in financial losses for them.

Now that the legal battle has been joined, the dispute could go on for months.

The case parallels a bid protest that SpaceX filed in the same court back in 2014, alleging that United Launch Services was unfairly favored in the Air Force's projected purchase of rocket cores for national security launches.

That lawsuit was dropped after nine months of legal wrangling when the Air Force agreed on a plan to certify SpaceX for national security launches. SpaceX conducted its first launch for the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program last December when a Falcon 9 rocket put an Air Force GPS satellite in orbit.

This report was originally published at 8:01 a.m. PT May 22 and has been updated to include today's filings from SpaceX and Northrop Grumman's Orbital ATK subsidiary.


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