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Elon Musk’s SpaceX Sues Government to Protest Military Launch Monopoly

Image: NASA picture of the SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo spacecraft grappled to Canadarm2 at the International Space Station

The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo spacecraft is grappled to Canadarm2 at the International Space Station in this NASA picture taken April 20. NASA via Reuters

WASHINGTON – The commercial SpaceX rocket venture is filing a lawsuit against the federal government to protest the purchase of rocket components from its main competitor, billionaire founder Elon Musk said Friday.

“This is not right,” Musk told reporters during a news conference at the National Press Club.

United Launch Alliance — a joint venture involving Lockheed Martin and the Boeing Co. — is currently the only company certified to launch military payloads for the federal government. SpaceX is trying to get certified to do those launches as well.

SpaceX says it can send those payloads into orbit much more cheaply than ULA can on its Atlas or Delta rockets. In a background statement, SpaceX notes that its published rate for a commercial Falcon 9 launch is $60 million, compared with an estimated price of more than $400 million each for ULA’s national security launches.

"... this seems like the wrong time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kremlin."

SpaceX acknowledged that “government-driven costs” would add to its per-launch price, but said it could still keep the price tag below $100 million. That could translate into an annual savings of $1 billion or more, SpaceX said.

Future launches could also use SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which is still under development.

Elon Musk Says SpaceX to File Lawsuit Against Government 1:46

Musk's protest focuses on the U.S. Air Force’s recently disclosed agreement to buy 36 rocket cores from ULA, which is an initial step leading to launches to come. About $630 million has been budgeted over the next fiscal year to purchase the booster cores for three rockets, plus hundreds of millions more for launch costs.

In addition to questions about the cost, Musk pointed out that ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket made use of Russian engine components. In light of the Ukraine crisis, “this seems like the wrong time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kremlin,” he said.

Musk emphasized that the suit wasn’t asking the federal government to award the launches to SpaceX rather than ULA. “We’re just protesting as saying that they should be competed,” he said.

The U.S. Air Force has been studying the results of SpaceX’s previous launches to determine whether the Falcon 9 can satisfy its requirements but has not yet issued its formal certification. Musk would like the Air Force to cancel the agreement to buy ULA’s rocket booster cores, wait several months for SpaceX to get certified, and then reconsider the award.

During a congressional hearing last month, ULA’s president and CEO, Michael Gass, emphasized the 100 percent reliability record of his venture’s Atlas and Delta rockets. “They are the only rockets that fully meet the unique and specialized needs of the national security community,” Gass told members of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee.

Soft landing

Also during Friday’s news conference, Musk confirmed that the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket used for April 18’s launch of a Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station made a “soft landing” in the Atlantic Ocean, as hoped, but was destroyed by heavy seas afterward.

“The data is very clear that it shows a soft landing,” Musk said. “It shows the deployment of all the legs … No one has ever soft-landed a liquid rocket boost stage before, and I think this bodes very well for achieving reusability.”

Elon Musk: Rocket Recovery Operations 'Were Challenging' 1:03

He said a recovery ship wasn’t able to look for the booster until two days after launch, when the seas were less stormy. The crew was able to find only bits and pieces of the rocket, including one of the deployed landing legs and fragments of the rocket’s interstage assembly.

The booster stage was able to send video back during its descent, but the quality was poor, Musk said. A cleaned-up version of the video would soon be released. Musk hoped that crowdsourcing could improve the quality even further.

Musk, who runs the Tesla electric-car company and the Solar City power-generating venture as well as SpaceX, wants to make the Falcon rocket fully reusable and recoverable to drive down the cost of spaceflight. Rapid and complete reusability of rocket components could reduce the cost of getting a payload in orbit to less than 1 percent of what it is today, he said.

By the end of the year, Musk hopes to have the Falcon 9 outfitted so that it can return to a Florida landing pad after launch. He said another attempt to recover the rocket’s first stage at sea would be made after the launch of an Orbcomm satellite constellation, currently set for next month.

“We’re securing much bigger boats this time,” Musk said.