For the first time since the company was formed in 2009, SpaceX looks poised to land their first national security launch contract. For the past decade plus, national security launches have been undertaken exclusively by one entity: United Launch Alliance (ULA) – “a 50-50 joint venture owned by Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Company.”1 In May of 2015, SpaceX was certified by the U.S. Air Force as a launch provider for national security missions, joining ULA as the second such provider.
On Monday, ULA announced that they would not submit a bid for an upcoming Pentagon contract to place new GPS satellites into orbit. ULA’s refusal to submit a bid stems from tighter – political in nature – restrictions placed on the company. ULA’s flagship rocket, the Atlas V (pictured below), relies on Russian made engines. Eric Berger, of Ars Technica, broke down why a Russian engine is a no-go for the U.S.:
ULA has had a sterling record with its Atlas 5 rocket, with more than 100 successful launches. However, the rocket relies on the Russian-manufactured RD-180 engine for its thrust, and given the ongoing tensions between the United States and Ukraine, the US Congress passed a law last year banning the use of these engines beginning in 2019.2
There is speculation that tat ULA is playing a game of chicken with the Pentagon over the issue of the Russian made rocket engines. The Washington Post lays out this speculation:
Ellen Tauscher, a former member of Congress who serves as an adviser to the firm, said ULA is trying to hold the Pentagon “hostage.”
“They are effectively saying, ‘We’re not going to bid unless you give us these Russian rockets’,” she said.3
Whatever the case, this is a huge win for SpaceX. And, ultimately, this will be a huge win for the U.S. military, as two bidders – though not for this particular contract – will dramatically reduce the cost of future launches.
- ULALaunch.com, “About ULA” ▲
- Eric Berger, Ars Technica, “SpaceX appears poised to launch its first national security payload,” 17 November 2015 ▲
- Christian Davenport, The Washington Post, “ULA bows out of Pentagon launch competition, paving way for SpaceX,” 16 November 2015 ▲