from the we-have-to-do...something...and-this-is-something...so-we-have-to-do-it dept.
SpaceX's rivals just blew the cover off the rocket company's secretive lawsuit against the US government. Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman (NOC) and United Launch Alliance all received Air Force contracts in October in response to the government's request for Launch Service Agreement proposals, or LSAs, which are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. SpaceX did not receive an LSA contract. Those awards are at the heart of SpaceX's new lawsuit, and they want to be involved in the proceedings to protect their interests, according to documents filed Tuesday and Wednesday.
[...] The Air Force developed the LSA to help awardees develop massive new rockets that could one day be capable of launching national security payloads for the military. ULA was promised up to $967 million for its forthcoming Vulcan Centaur rocket. Northrop Grumman, which is building a launch vehicle called OmegA, will receive up to $792 million. And Blue Origin will get $500 million for its New Glenn rocket. The awards, however, do not guarantee that the new rockets will one day win military launch contracts, which are extremely lucrative and coveted in the space industry.
[...] SpaceX, like the other companies, is also developing a new launch vehicle: It's called Starship and Super Heavy, a rocket and spaceship system that Musk has described as the technology that will allow humans to colonize Mars. Theoretically, the rocket could be used to help launch heavy military payloads into orbit as well.
The redacted SpaceX complaint posted Wednesday states that the company's proposal asked for money to support all three of [its] rockets — the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, which are already operational, and Starship. But officials determined that including Starship would render "the entire SpaceX portfolio the 'highest risk'" of all the options. SpaceX called that claim "unreasonable," according to the complaint. "The Agency wrongly awarded LSAs to a portfolio of three unproven rockets based on unstated metrics, unequal treatment under the procurement criteria, and opaque industrial planning," SpaceX alleged.
On Wednesday, the US Air Force awarded its much-anticipated new round of "Launch Service Agreements," which provide funds to rocket companies to complete development of their boosters. There were three winners:
- United Launch Services: $967,000,000 for the development of the Vulcan Centaur launch system.
- Northrop Grumman: $791,601,015 for development of the Omega launch system
- Blue Origin: $500,000,000 for the development of the New Glenn launch system
At least two other companies were believed to be in the running for these awards, as they won grants during an earlier round of funding in 2016. It was not a surprise to see Aerojet Rocketdyne fail to win an award, as that company does not appear to have a customer for its AR1 rocket engine, which the military initially supported. It was something of a surprise not to see SpaceX win an award.
[...] These are hugely consequential awards for the rocket companies. Essentially the US Air Force, which launches more complex, heavy payloads than any other entity in the world, believes these boosters will have a significant role to play in those missions during the next decade. And when the military has confidence in your vehicle, commercial satellite contracts are more likely to follow as well.
Blue Origin wants the U.S. Air Force to wait until 2021 before picking the two companies it intends [to] use for launching critical military satellites in the decade ahead.
The Air Force, however, aims to solicit proposals this spring and choose its two preferred launch providers in 2020 — perhaps a year or more before the new rockets that the Air Force is fostering at Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance and Northrop Grumman make their first flights.
All three companies were chosen in October by the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center to share $2.3 billion in so-called Launch Service Agreement (LSA) funding to support development of next-generation rockets capable of meeting the military's satellite launch needs.
The Air Force said last fall that all three LSA winners plus SpaceX would be required to submit new proposals in 2019 if they want to be among the two providers the Air Force intends to select in 2020 to split up to 25 future launch contracts.
Wait long enough, and maybe Starship will become a contender.
[Ed note: This story was originally posted 2019.08.14 21:36 UTC but was lost when we had the site crash this morning. Prior comments have, unfortunately, been lost. takyon: This story has been further updated to avoid confusion.]
Update: Tim Chen has retracted his earlier comments and has stated that there is actually no agreement currently in place with SpaceX for RUAG to produce taller fairings out of its new Decatur, AL factory.
[...] SpaceX has three obvious responses at its disposal: design and build an entirely new variant of its universal Falcon fairing, purchase the necessary fairings from an established supplier, or bow out of launch contract competitions that demand it. The latter option is immediately untenable given that it could very well mean bowing out of the entire US military competition, known as Phase 2 of the National Security Space Launch program's (NSSL; formerly EELV) Launch Services Procurement (LSP).
For dubious reasons, the US Air Force (USAF) has structured the NSSL Phase 2 acquisition in such a way that – despite there being four possible competitors – only two will be awarded contracts at its conclusion. The roughly ~30 launch contracts up for grabs would be split 60:40 between the two victors, leaving two competitors completely emptyhanded. In short, bowing out of the Phase 2 competition could mean forgoing as many as one or two-dozen contracts worth at least $1-2B, depending on the side of the 60:40 split.
[...] Interestingly, although ULA's RUAG-built Atlas V fairing is slightly narrower than SpaceX's 5.2m (17 ft) diameter fairing, Atlas V's largest fairing is significantly taller, supporting payloads up to 16.5m (54 ft) tall compared to 11m (36 ft) for Falcon 9 and Heavy. Given that just a tiny portion of military spacecraft actually need fairings that tall, SpaceX is apparently not interested in simply modifying its own fairing design and production equipment to support a 20-30% stretch.
This likely relates in part to the fact that one of SpaceX's three NSSL Phase 2 competitors – Northrop Grumman (Omega), Blue Origin (New Glenn), and ULA (Vulcan) – are guaranteed to receive hundreds of millions of dollars of development funding after winning one of the two available slots (60% or 40% of contracts). SpaceX, on the other hand, will receive no such funding while still having to meet the same stringent USAF requirements compete in LSP Phase 2. Of note, Congressman Adam Smith managed to insert a clause into FY2020's defense authorization bill that could disburse up to $500M to SpaceX in the event that the company is one of Phase 2's two winners.
Previously: The Military Chooses Which Rockets It Wants Built for the Next Decade
Blue Origin Urges U.S. Air Force to Delay Launch Provider Decision
SpaceX Sues the U.S. Air Force, Again
SpaceX's attempts to buy bigger Falcon fairings complicated by contractor's ULA relationship