Blue Origin and ULA are trying to intervene in SpaceX’s secret lawsuit against the government
Last week, SpaceX sued the US government over an unknown federal contract it didn’t receive — and now the company’s rivals Blue Origin and the United Launch Alliance want to intervene with the lawsuit. The two companies believe that SpaceX is protesting a combined $2 billion award the US Air Force gave to Blue Origin, ULA, and Northrop Grumman last October to develop new rockets for the Air Force. SpaceX didn’t receive any money at the time, and now it’s possible the company wants to change that.
The awards were part of a coveted Air Force initiative known as the Launch Service Agreement program, aimed at developing new American-made rockets that can take military satellites into orbit. For decades, the Air Force has depended on the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, which is powered by the Russian RD-180. But in the wake of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Department of Defense has been trying to eliminate its reliance on Russian rocket technology for national security missions.
In October, the Air Force granted the United Launch Alliance $967 million to aid the company’s development of a new rocket called Vulcan, and Northrup Grumman received more than $791 million for its new rocket the OmegA. Blue Origin also received $500 million to help develop its future rocket, New Glenn. Surprisingly, SpaceX’s next generation vehicle Starship was left out.
The money for the LSA program is merely meant to help accelerate rocket development, and does not mean that these three companies are guaranteed to launch national security payloads in the years ahead. Eventually, the Air Force will pick two companies to launch all national security contracts awarded between fiscal year 2020 and 2024, which will include missions that launch up until 2027. In early May, the Air Force released a final request for proposals from rocket companies to compete for this initiative, known as Launch Services Procurement. All of the LSA awardees can apply, and so can SpaceX, since it’s already certified to launch national security payloads.
It’s unclear why SpaceX would be protesting the LSA awards eight months later, when the company can still compete in the next phase of the program. Even CEO Elon Musk admitted that SpaceX’s proposal for LSA had “missed the mark,” according to a report from the Pentagon’s inspector general. SpaceX also requested that its recent lawsuit be sealed, since it contains “confidential and proprietary information and source selection information not appropriate for release to the public.”
But in their motions filed to the United States Court of Federal Claims, both Blue Origin and United Launch Services, a subsidiary of ULA, argue that the protest is definitely about the LSA awards and that they should be able to intervene to protect their rights and interests as awardees. Blue Origin argues that “SpaceX has challenged the government’s conduct under the LSA transaction” and that SpaceX’s protest could affect Blue Origin’s chances in the second phase of the program.
Blue Origin has already expressed concern about the Air Force competition, arguing that the military should postpone making its final two selections until 2021. Blue Origin has claimed that picking winners now would give SpaceX and ULA an advantage as the current national security launch providers, and that ultimately more than two companies should be chosen. (It’s worth noting that if Blue Origin isn’t chosen as one of the final two, the company won’t receive the rest of the money from its LSA award.)
SpaceX has filed protests against the US government before, most notably in 2014 in order to protest a major national security launch contract given to ULA that SpaceX was not allowed to bid on. SpaceX also filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office in February over a launch contract for a NASA mission called Lucy that also went to ULA. SpaceX ultimately dropped that protest.