SpaceX Protests NASA Contract Award to ULA

An artist’s concept of the Lucy Mission. (Credit: SwRI)

SpaceNews reports that SpaceX has filed a protest over NASA’s decision to award an $148.3 million contract to rival United Launch Alliance for the launch of the Lucy asteroid mission.

“NASA has issued a stop work order on the agency’s Lucy mission after a protest of the contract award was filed with the Government Accountability Office,” agency spokesperson Tracy Young said Feb. 13. “NASA is always cognizant of its mission schedule, but we are not able to comment on pending litigation.”

SpaceX confirmed that the company was protesting the contract. “Since SpaceX has started launching missions for NASA, this is the first time the company has challenged one of the agency’s award decisions,” a company spokesperson said in a statement to SpaceNews.

“SpaceX offered a solution with extraordinarily high confidence of mission success at a price dramatically lower than the award amount, 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,” the spokesperson added. ULA is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin….

A key factor in the decision to award the contract to ULA was schedule certainty. Lucy has a complex mission profile with a series of flybys in order to visit several asteroid either leading or following Jupiter in its orbit around the sun. That results in a launch window that is open for only about 20 days in October 2021. Should the launch miss that window, the mission cannot be flown as currently planned.

The Government Accountability Office has until May 22 to render a decision.

  • Terry Stetler

    Why not? Make these agencies document and justify their sacred cow practices.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, it is good that SpaceX is fighting back against the good old boy network. I also suspect it’s payback for the USAF auditing them which has ULA finger prints all over it. After all, who benefits most from such an audit?

  • duheagle

    The thing about ULA’s alleged “schedule certainty” was a bit rich coming on the heels of the serial delays attending NROL-71.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    What are you talking about, SpaceX exists BECAUSE of the goold ole boy network? Come on Thomas, you have no problem with a good ole boy network just so long as your boy gets the treats. As you know, you have to feed all your children.

  • Robert G. Oler

    The USAF is starting to “look closer” at SpaceX for a couple of reasons. 1) they are pretty taken aback by what SpaceX did with the raptor money 2) they are pretty taken aback by how Musk has acted personally and 3) most important their folks “on the floor” at SpaceX are starting to have issues with well what they are being told and things that they are seeing there. in other words they are starting to not believe the claims

    there is no more a SpaceCadet then the Secretary of the USAF who is virtually leading American space policy right now. She is “planting a lot of seeds” to try and shake up the lift equation in the US…but she is not easily snowed either….nor are the people who are sent to interface with these organizations

    the audit doesnt have ULA prints all over it, it has the prints of the USAF and NRO people who are there on the floor…

    everyone would benefit from knowing the truth about SpaceX numbers

  • ThomasLMatula

    You really you like the government wasting taxpayer dollars by paying millions more than is needed for a service? That is what this is all about, how Old Space wastes tax payer money when cheaper alternatives are available.

  • ThomasLMatula

    “everyone would benefit from knowing the truth about SpaceX numbers”

    So you are advocating for the government, or those in government, to leak sensitive corporate information on costs and productivity?

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    With SpaceX openly talking about ceasing Falcon production before BF(x) is even done with it’s design, and given the fact that the company is willing to bet everything on a technically risky new vehicle, I’m sorry I would not want to hand a monopoly to someone like that. All the malfunctions of ULA are everywhere except the launch vehicles. To the DoD it’s not about space, it’s about meeting their mission requirements. If I were to choose between a monopolistic ULA or a monopolistic SX, based off the past year, I’d give it to ULA, but I prefer both.

  • publiusr

    EELVs have always been an albatross for the Air Force–they tried to force Griffin to wear it–and it was ULA, not new spacers, that started all the hate against shuttle derived heavy lift–saying NASA shouldn’t build their own rockets.

    https://www.americaspace.com/2010/09/13/aerospace-letter-suggests-augustine-commissions-decisions-were-predetermined/
    https://www.americaspace.com/2015/12/11/gen-hyten-sen-mccain-pummel-ula-raytheon-for-poor-judgement-incompetence/

    ULA has to change
    https://www.popularmechanics.com/space/rockets/a10471/why-i-feel-bad-for-the-united-launch-alliance-sort-of-16751355/

  • ThomasLMatula

    So you are OK with NASA paying ULA $148 million for a launch SpaceX could do for around $70 million? It’s OK for the taxpayers to be ripped off in order to keep ULA afloat?

  • Robert G. Oler

    You said it yourself Thomas…SpaceX claims it can do a launch for XX that ULA says cost YY and YY is more than XX. We need to know if that is true

    And there is a lot of evidence that says its not. We are basing national space policy on those numbers

  • Robert G. Oler

    Yes. This is why the SecAF is backing off on SpaceX…and is looking for a robust space launch market. Her job is to get payloads to orbit…I think she would like to help advance the industry as well…but Musk so far has floundered on a lot of his claims

  • redneck

    Pretty simple to compare two bids. The only thing I need to know about Fords’ price structure is what they want me to pay for a truck.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I may be falsely under the impression that SX charges the government $90 to $110 mil for a launch to address all the extra process control and documentation, I was not under the impression the price gap between a normal commercial launch and a government launch was only $10. However, let’s just go with your numbers. Even with your numbers, yes. I’m not looking for a pure market, in fact neither are you. You are fine with government market rigging that favors Space X, and I’m in favor of market rigging to maintain more of a balance between active launch providers. Rigging a market takes money.

  • redneck

    Makes sense to me. A monopoly jeopardizes national security. As much as I am a fan of SpaceX, I am not in favor of depending on one supplier. In a very few years it is likely to be different. For now ULA shutting its’ doors would not be in the national security interest. Which is a different discussion than the one about publishing proprietary information.

  • ThomasLMatula

    You have drunken deep from the ULA kool-aid. Selecting the lowest price provider is not market riggin, it how a government buying is suppose to work, to save taxpayer funds.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yet, before SpaceX, ULA was a monopoly in terms of U.S.A.F. launches…

  • ThomasLMatula

    No, we are not basing national space policy on those numbers. You are still stuck in the Old Space mindset. You only need to know the cost structure if it’s a cost plus contract, not a fixed price one. As Redneck notes, I don’t need to know how much you make as a pilot when buying a ticket on your flight. Or how much your airline paid for the B777.

  • redneck

    And it became one of the more expensive launch services on the planet. I’m not saying SpaceX would be as bad. I’m suggesting that when there in no competition, prices often escalate.

  • ThomasLMatula

    True, in a market that is normal. But if ULA knows they will still get X numbers of launches from the government to keep them in business there is no reason for them to lower costs either, hence the huge difference between their prices and SpaceX prices.

  • duheagle

    Are you going after some sort of record for fact-free non sequitur comments?

    Show me where anyone at SpaceX is “openly talking about ceasing Falcon production before BF(x) is even done with it’s design.” Shotwell, for one, has said pretty much the opposite.

    SpaceX is, indeed, “betting the company” on a new vehicle embodying modest technical risk, but so is ULA. And, unlike ULA, SpaceX has already got the engine for said vehicle pretty much nailed down. ULA looks to be by far the riskier proposition to me.

    No one is talking about “handing a monopoly” to SpaceX. But SpaceX has been Level 3 certified by NASA since last Nov. so I think a bit of explanation for this recent ULA award – beyond the risible “schedule certainty” argument – is very much in order.

    All the ULA failures are not “everywhere except the launch vehicles.” The skin-of-their-teeth failure avoidance on a Cygnus mission came after an RD-180 underperformed in flight. NROL-71’s serial delays were mostly attributable to hydrogen leaks in one of the booster cores.

    I’m sure the DoD is very concerned about meeting their mission requirements. But the launch mission in question is for NASA, not DoD. For what it’s worth, DoD has not been notably reticent in placing valuable payloads atop SpaceX rockets.

    You’re certainly free to indicate which company would be your favorite monopoly but, given that no monopoly franchise is in the offing for either firm, your stated preference in this regard seems entirely irrelevant to the issue at hand.

  • duheagle

    You see “backing off” where none seems in evidence and fail to see what most everyone else seems to think more than adequate evidence for Musk’s claims.

    Even assuming, for the sake of argument only, that USAF was “backing off” from SpaceX, what would that have to do with the contract award for a NASA mission?

    I’m sure the SecAF is looking for a robust U.S. space launch market. Sheought to be. But SpaceX is now the most solid part of same; it’s all the other players who are more iffy to one degree or another. Despite USAF’s latest decision to award $2.3 billion to the next three also-rans, it is problematical just how robust a U.S. launch market will eventuate. With the exception of Blue Origin, I’m not optimistic USAF is likely to see any return on its LSA investment.

  • duheagle

    I’m fascinated as to what you consider to be “market rigging that favors SpaceX.” Care to elucidate? Given that SpaceX is, far and away, the low-cost provider in space launch, it seems any “market rigging” would, perforce, have to be for some other provider’s benefit.

  • duheagle

    SpaceX has managed to stay in business for 17 years by charging XX where other providers want to charge YY. I’d say that’s pretty convincing evidence that SpaceX’s actual costs are low enough that it can charge XX and still make money. If SpaceX, for the sake of argument only, is notmaking money when it charges XX for a mission, where is the money coming from to make up the implied shortfall? SpaceX coffee mugs, T-shirts and other merch? Boring Company flamethrowers?

    For a long time, SpaceX detractors professed belief in huge, off-the-books secret government cash infusions to SpaceX. Now, you’re implying the government is not a friend of SpaceX – at least the USAF. So USAF is, one presumes, not also secretly sneaking Elon a few billion in a paper bag to cover his shortfalls. Who else? NASA? Please! There is much better evidence that NASA is unfriendly to SpaceX these days than is the case with USAF. Private investors? Private investors don’t throw good money after bad.

    Face it, Dude, SpaceX’s low prices are 100% legit. Simply because your beloved Boeing can’t match them is no reason to believe SpaceX has concluded some pact with the Devil to make it possible.

  • Robert G. Oler

    NASA and the USAF has simliar requirements in terms of reliability…and cost…

    if SpaceX finances are weak, they are not the most solid part

  • Robert G. Oler

    if as you conceed SpaceX is not in the elastic part of the price range…and the cost difference is at best 10-20 million dollars on a mission worth 10-20 or more times that…whats the big deal

  • duheagle

    Yes, poor poverty-stricken SpaceX, always about to go under according to its delusional critics yet somehow it never does.

    SpaceX, coming off 40 straight successful F9 missions and a successful FH test is in much better financial shape now than it was back in 2015 and 2016 when it had actual failures to get past – and it weathered both of those storms in fine style. It has also managed to develop the engine for its newest rocket to a production-ready state.

    In short, SpaceX is in a better place, financialy and technically, than it was in late 2008 when it got the CRS contract. It had Falcon 9 flying a year and a half after that. Today’s bigger, savvier much more experienced SpaceX should be able to do at least that well anent SH-Starship.

  • Robert G. Oler

    how much any airline paid for their airplanes is really not that hard to figure out…but the analogy fails because no one is buying rockets from Musk, they are buying a commodity…launches and how much one pays for a ticket on our B777’s is something you can work out on the web page 🙂