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Blood feud developing between SpaceX, ULA over defense launch contracts

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Something of a blood feud seems to have developed between two space companies. In one corner is SpaceX, the upstart, entrepreneurial corporation started by Elon Musk which proposes to lower the cost of space flight with its Falcon family of launch vehicles. In the other corner is the United Launch Alliance, the staid, established conglomerate run as a joint venture by two aerospace giants, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. At stake is lucrative business offered by the Department of Defense to launch military satellites.

A Thursday story in the International Business Times reports that ULA is planning to wean itself from reliance on Russian made rocket engines and is planning to develop its own made in America engines. This is in part in response to Russian threats to cut off the supply of RD-180 engines for American military launches. It is also in response to jibes from SpaceX, whose rocket engines are already made in America. The move is to save ULA’s market share of launch contracts now being threatened by SpaceX.

The Washington Post recounts the developing fight between the two launch companies. Back in April SpaceX sued the federal government over a multibillion dollar contract to launch DOD payloads. SpaceX contends that it should be allowed to compete for those contracts under a competitive bid. The company is currently being certified as an approved DOD contractor.

SpaceX contends that it can provide launch services to DOD or anyone else far cheaper than any other vendor, especially ULA. Now ULA is fighting back, claiming that SpaceX is “cutting corners,” implying that it has sacrificed safety and reliability for cost savings. ULA touts its own record of reliable launches.

The problem is that ULA’s American made rocket engines are years in the future. SpaceX has a made in America launch system now. If Russia carries through on its threat, SpaceX may be the only launch company capable to handling defense business, at least until ULA can get its new rocket engine developed and flight tested.