A Thursday story in Defense Systems reports that the United States Air Force has filed a motion in the United States Court of Federal Claims to dismiss a law suit brought against it by SpaceX. The suit concerns a sole source block buy by the Air Force of 36 EELV rocket launches for various national security satellites. SpaceX contends that this is unfair and that it should be allowed to bid competitively for those contracts. The company claims that it could service those launches at a 75 percent cost savings.
The Air Force claims that SpaceX knew that the contract was going to be sole source as far back as 2012 and did not complain then. Since SpaceX has yet to be certified as a contractor for Defense Department payloads, it would not be a qualified bidder to begin with. The United Launch Alliance, which builds and markets the EELV, has a record of over 50 successful launches whereas SpaceX is a relative newcomer to the commercial launch business.
The motion is the latest in what amounts to a “blood feud” that has pitted the staid, aerospace company jointly owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin and the young upstart SpaceX. Accusations have flown back and forth, with SpaceX decrying what amounts to a monopoly in Defense Department launch contracts and ULA claiming that its rival has cut corners to achieve cost savings. Complicating matters is that fact that ULS relies on a Russian-made rocket engine, the RD-180, which might not be available much longer. SpaceX’s Falcon rockets are made in the USA.
The struggle between SpaceX and ULA being played out in the courts and in the media is strikingly similar to that waged between the Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtis as recounted in the recent book “Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies.” Strong personalities, a promising new technology, and potential lucrative markets combined to create a decades long clash that shaped early aviation history and ruined the men involved. Whether the current blood feud will repeat itself for commercial rocketry remains to be seen.