SpaceX protests NASA launch contract to ULA


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Turf war! SpaceX has filed a protest against a NASA launch contract award to ULA for almost $150 million for the Lucy asteroid mission in 2023.

In a statement, SpaceX, the California company founded by Elon Musk, said it was the first time it had challenged a NASA contract.

“SpaceX offered a solution with extraordinarily high confidence of mission success at a price dramatically lower than the award amount,” the company said in a statement to The Washington Post. “So we believe the decision to pay vastly more to Boeing and Lockheed for the same mission was therefore not in the best interest of the agency or the American taxpayers.”

This protest might explain the politics of two other stories recently:

In the first case two California politicians are using their clout to pressure the Air Force for the benefit of SpaceX. In the second the Air Force inspector general office is using its clout to pressure the Air Force to hurt SpaceX.

All these stories illustrate the corrupt crony capitalism that now permeates any work our federal government does. In order to get government business, you have to wield political power, which means you need to kowtow to politicians and bureaucrats. Very ugly, and very poisonous.

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10 comments

  • wodun

    This type of thing is very common because the government spends a lot of money and passes lots of regulations that affect companies. People always want to remove the right of companies and individuals to use freedom of speech to lobby or promote issues that affect them. But, what they really want to do is remove the right of people they don’t like from speaking. Their favored people and groups will still be allowed to engage in this activity.

    As long as the government spends money and passes laws, there will be individuals and groups competing for the money and how those laws take shape, and rightfully so.

    The only way to reduce, it can’t be eliminated, is to reduce the size and scope of government.

  • pzatchok

    I can see the reasoning for the government/military to promote a second launch producer.
    It is good for military security. Two different launch vehicles are better than one. Two different launch locations are better than one.

    In a perfect world though they would cost almost the same. This price is a huge difference though.

  • mkent

    This price is a huge difference though.

    Not compared to the $900+ million being spent on the mission. Considering that missing the 21-day launch window means waiting *decades* for it to recur, I’m glad NASA chose the Atlas for this one. SpaceX blows a lot of schedules by a year or more.

    I just hope the stop-work order that resulted from the protest doesn’t cause it to miss its window either.

  • Dick Eagleson

    SpaceX launches a lot more rockets in a year than ULA so it will, everything else being equal, have more schedule slippages. Most of its launches are not especially time-critical. In many cases, delays are owing to payload problems. The recently completed Iridium Next campaign of eight launches was about a year late in finishing, for example, but that was because Iridium had construction and checkout schedule problems with its satellites.

    Schedule slippages aren’t exactly unknown at ULA either. If NROL-71 had been under some sort of hard-and-fast 21 day launch window requirement, it would have missed it.

    The Lucy mission is 2-1/2 years out. By October 2021 ULA may well no longer even be in business. SpaceX, on the other hand – now that its Block 5 technology is in service – could probably provide an entire backup rocket on stand-by and still come in at a lower price than ULA.

  • pzatchok

    “Not compared to the $900+ million being spent on the mission.”

    And this attitude is why the government is always over budget.

    Think of it like your home. A 1000 dollar gas bill isn’t much compared to the cost of the house. Or 10 dollar a gallon gas is fine compared to the cost of the car.

  • Richard M

    It’s legitimate for NASA to value ability to launch on time, and not just price point, for a mission in which there’s only a twenty day launch window. Cheap doesn’t help you much if your contractor can’t hit the window.

    But does any really doubt that SpaceX could hit a twenty day launch window if it absolutely had to for its biggest client?

    Its manifest is mostly made up of comsat clients who simply do not have that kind of scheduling specificity.

    It makes sense to at least force NASA to provide transparency on this decision when we know that a losing bidder was substantially lower in price and is otherwise a proven vendor who can fulfill all the other mission requirements.

  • Edward

    pzatchok wrote: “And this attitude is why the government is always over budget.

    Some care must be taken in this conclusion.

    First, the reason we spend extra money to have fuses into our electronics is to prevent the case of the even more expensive loss of the devices that the fuses protect. Spending more on a more reliable rocket has benefits. Unlike several commercial launches, Lucy is a one-off mission, so a rocket failure results in a total mission failure. A rocket failure for Iridium, for instance, would only have delayed the full implementation of the next constellation. Think of the more expensive rocket as the fuse protecting an irreplaceable mission — it is the importance of the mission, not the cost relative to the launch of it, that drives this type of decision.

    Second, the rocket cost may already be included in the budget.

    There are several reasons that NASA goes over budget that do not have much to do with the sunk-cost fallacy.

    Robert’s point in his post does not seem to be about the reliability of the two companies or the price difference. It seems to be about the politics that has become involved and that politics is making important mission decisions rather than relying upon reasoned and rational cost/risk assessments.

  • mkent

    But does any really doubt that SpaceX could hit a twenty day launch window if it absolutely had to for its biggest client?

    NASA does, apparently, and for good reason. SpaceX was years late in launching Falcon 1, years late in launching Falcon 9, years late in launching Falcon Heavy, years late in flying Dragon 1, and is years late in flying Dragon 2. Heck, they have yet to complete the CC*i*Cap contract yet.

    And it goes beyond development. Even after resetting the clock with the Falcon Heavy maiden launch last year, SpaceX is still running a year late on their first two customer launches. Falcon 9 flights often run more than a year behind schedule. Some customer launches have been so late that, after becoming intolerant of the delay, the customers booked a flight with another provider and still launched before their SpaceX launch date.

    The fanboys always make excuses for them, but from a customer payload perspective, SpaceX’s physical reliability and dispatch reliability are dwarfed by their major competitors. Some customers will take the discount and the risks. Other customers prefer to pay more to get their payload to orbit intact and on time. This time, NASA is in the latter category.

  • pzatchok

    And how late is NASA on SLS/Orion?
    How is that Hubble replacement coming? The Webb telescope.
    How about that Space Shuttle? Still flying on time and budget?

    Sorry but a year behind is so far not that bad. At least the customers are still sticking with them. And they are the important metric.

  • Edward

    mkent,
    I am not under the impression that NASA is worried about the 20-day window. SpaceX has shuffled payloads before in order to meet customer needs.

    Falcon 9 is operational, so pointing out delays in development (which virtually every rocket flown has had) is irrelevant. SpaceX is not offering a rocket that is still in development.

    I think that the main concern is specific to rocket reliability during launch. On three occasions SpaceX has had some difficulty in this regard. I do not know whether SpaceX’s “solution with extraordinarily high confidence of mission success” is correct, but that seems to be the dispute.

    Either way, even the highly reliable ULA and Ariane (which is not part of this dispute) have had rare difficulties achieving the proper orbit. Every rocket launch has risks, and SpaceX is trying to convince people that they are no longer as risky as they once were, that they deserve the “latter category,” as you put it. I don’t know whether or not they are there, yet, but that is clearly their objective with this protest.

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