Rocket-Maker Elon Musk Challenges Air Force to Open Bidding

Image: Rocket-Maker Elon Musk Challenges Air Force to Open Bidding

Monday, 12 May 2014 12:56 PM

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SpaceX, the rocket-maker owned by billionaire industrialist Elon Musk, is suing the Air Force to open its satellite launch program to competitive bidding and terminate the monopoly held by another company, National Public Radio reported.

Musk has lost one court challenge to the Air Force's sole-source contract with SpaceX's would-be competitor, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin spinoff United Launch Alliance (ULA). He refiled the lawsuit this spring and caused an immediate stir by getting a federal judge to block ULA from doing business with a Russian subcontractor.

But the same judge lifted the injunction days later, ruling last week that ULA was not violating U.S. economic sanctions against Russia — imposed after Russia's annexation of Crimea — by farming out construction of launch rocket engines to Russia-based NPO Energomash.

ULA applauded the decision in statement denouncing "SpaceX's frivolous lawsuit" as a "distraction" at a time of "increased tensions with Russia during a sensitive national security crisis."

But the core of SpaceX's renewed legal challenge remains. The judge has yet to rule on whether the Air Force erred when it re-signed a long-term, multibillion-dollar contract with ULA and whether the launch program should be ordered to pursue costs savings through competition.

Musk has called ULA's payload carrier, the Atlas V rocket, "insanely expensive." He says SpaceX's own vehicle, the Falcon 9, can safely put Air Force satellites into orbit for $100 million to $300 million less per launch.

ULA's record is flawless: 50 for 50 in satellite launches. But SpaceX's brash and opinionated chief, who also founded the electric carmaker Tesla, says his California-based rocketry shop will meet all the Air Force's tech specifications for less.

"This contract is costing the U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars for no reason," Musk said at a recent news conference.

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