SpaceX Protests USAF Launcher Development Awards to Rivals

SpaceX is protesting the U.S. Air Force decision to award $2.3 billion in launch vehicle development funding to rivals Blue Origin,  Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems and United Launch Alliance last year.

SpaceX “respectfully challenges the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s evaluation of proposals and portfolio award decision under the Launch Services Agreement (“LSA”)…as arbitrary and capricious and contrary to law,”  the company said in its complaint. “SpaceX does not seek any advantage, but only the opportunity to compete for national security missions on a fair and level playing field.”

The protest, which SpaceX had hoped to keep secret, says that awards were given to “three unproven rockets based on unstated metrics, unequal treatment under the procurement criteria, and opaque industrial planning.” SpaceX said.

“For the overwhelming majority of planned [national security missions], SpaceX offered operational rockets already certified to carry the Nation’s most important payloads, yet the Agency inexplicably deemed SpaceX’s offering the ‘highest risk.'”

In the complaint, SpaceX said its two operational boosters, Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, would be able to launch all defense satellites through late 2025. At that point, the company’s Starship rocket — which is being built and tested in Texas — would be able to launch the “tiny fraction” of larger payloads that its two Falcon boosters couldn’t lift.

“The Agency’s Source Selection Authority (“SSA) nonethless determined that SpaceX’s one developmental vehicle rendered the entire SpaceX portfolio the ‘highest risk’ and chose the portfolio that best served the needs of ULA, the long-standing incumbent,” the complaint said.

Blue Origin received funding for its New Glenn booster, Northrop Grumman for OmegA, and ULA for Vulcan. All are set for flight tests in the next several years.

The claims in the SpaceX complaint are interesting in light of an ethics investigative report into Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan by the Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General that was released on April 25.

The report describes a meeting between Shanahan and Musk in which the SpaceX founder blamed his own company for its failure to receive an award.

“Mr. Musk also noted that SpaceX was not successful in the recent Air Force competition for a launch service contract and that SpaceX had written a poor proposal that ‘missed the mark.’ According to the MFR, Mr. Shanahan did not comment on the bid competition.”

Then U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson had objected to Shanahan meeting with Musk because SpaceX had just lost a launch contract to Boeing. Shanahan, who is a former Boeing executive, responded that he did not plan to discuss the contract with the SpaceX CEO. The IG’s ethics investigation cleared Shanahan of any wrongdoing in the Musk meeting or other actions it reviewed.