SpaceX, a space cargo company, sued the U.S. government last year in federal court for the right to bid on military satellite launches. The company is now poised to win its first contract for a military satellite launch after its main competitor, a joint-venture between Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, declined to submit a bid.
United Launch Alliance, or ULA, has enjoyed a monopoly on U.S. national security-related space launches since 2006, when Boeing and Lockheed teamed up on space launches. But its reliance on now-banned Russian RD-180 rocket engines has made it impossible for the company to present a compliant bid to the U.S. Air Force, which conducts the Pentagon’s space launch business.
That leaves SpaceX, founded by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, as the only certified competitor for a contract to launch a GPS satellite sometime next year. Getting a lucrative military contract world would mark a significant triumph for SpaceX. Although the company has developed a strong commercial satellite launch business, it has yet to make much headway with the U.S. government, which is one of the world’s largest space launch customers. Government agencies are expected to spend $1.5 billion on launches this year alone.
Bids for the Pentagon’s next GPS satellite launch, worth an undisclosed amount of money, were due Monday. ULA failed to submit one citing its lack of access to RD-180 engines. That leaves SpaceX as the lone contender for the contract, though a final decision on who wins the bid isn’t expected until the end of March. In the meantime, the Air Force or Congress could alter the outcome. After all, one of the main reasons for bringing SpaceX on board as a certified military launch provider was to inject competition into what has been a monopoly. Without ULA in the competition, it’s not really a competition at all.
“I very much want to participate in future competitions,” ULA CEO Tory Bruno told the Washington Post on Monday, “and having access to the Atlas V launch vehicle is key.”
There were other complications with the competition as well. The terms of the competition valued price over reliability, historical performance, and experience, Bruno said. That took ULA’s biggest strengths out of the equation while offering lower-cost SpaceX an advantage.
A trip to orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 costs $80 million to $90 million, while an Atlas V launch reportedly costs roughly twice that. ULA, on the other hand, owns an enviable track record. Last month it successfully delivered its 100th satellite to orbit. Meanwhile SpaceX is still recovering from a launch failure in June in which one of its Falcon 9 rockets broke apart mid-flight.
ULA is working with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space startup to develop a wholly new, American-made rocket engine to power a rocket designed to help the company compete with SpaceX on price. But neither rocket nor engine will be ready for flight until 2019 at the soonest.
(Article Courtesy of Fortune.com)
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