SpaceX sues US government to protest mystery launch or rocket contracts

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SpaceX has filed a lawsuit — technically a “Bid Protest Complaint” — against the United States government and successfully petitioned for the file to remain closed, restricting accessibility to additional instance details for the time being.

This growth follows a quiet series of bid protests SpaceX filed with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in February 2019, soon after NASA announced that it had given ULA a ~$150M launch contract for Lucy (a robotic Trojan asteroid explorer). SpaceX believed it may function the mission in a “dramatically lower” price, potentially saving the national government tens of millions of bucks. SpaceX withdrew both of its GAO bid protests without remark on April 4th. Whether those prior protests are associated to SpaceX’s May 2019 lawsuit is cloudy.

Complaint is sealed. Chances are a redacted version will become available. | SpaceX files lawsuit against the national government — but inquires to maintain the details under wraps https://t.co/jI5mNf1Tzr via @GeekWire #spacelaw

— Michael J. Listner (@ponder68) May 18, 2019

Adding more complexity and uncertainty to the series of events, NASA granted SpaceX the launch contract because of its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft on April 20th, roughly two weeks later SpaceX retracted its Lucy protests. The cause-and-effect relationship between both occasions is completely ambiguous. Perhaps SpaceX withdrew before the firm was made aware of their DART win. Perhaps they withdrew their protest since they heard of NASA’s award.

Regardless of exactly what did or did not trigger the contract award, the reality remains that SpaceX’s DART launch will cost NASA ~$70M, less than half the price of ULA’s ~$150M Lucy launch contract. As like it appears likely that launching Lucy on Falcon 9 might have stored the US government up to $50M, assuming that an abysmal profile (~$100M per SpaceX’s most up-to-date GPS III launch contracts).

Falcon 9’s upper platform along with NASA’s 600 kg DART asteroid impactor. (SpaceX/NASA)

Returning to the topic available, the simplest explanation is that SpaceX’s GAO bid protests and May 2019 lawsuit are in some manner associated. Although SpaceX was obviously right as it insinuated it might launch Lucy much more easily compared to ULA, the firm was criticized because of its GAO protests since they effectively froze — or at least complicated — operate on the NASA spacecraft. In the occasion which the withdrawals and lawsuit are associated, SpaceX could have backed down after entering into the slow GAO protest procedure, essentially conceding the contract to ULA and allowing spacecraft work to continue without disruption.

Replaced with a lawsuit against the US government, SpaceX could instead be attempting to alter the procedures that contribute NASA to award ULA the Lucy launch contract in spite of potential savings on the arrangement of ~$50M. SpaceX has achieved something similar once before if it sued the US Air Force because of its uncompetitive launch procurement procedures, a mostly prosperous undertaking which has helped induce a few competition into USAF/DoD launch contracts.

Atlas V lifts off with the USAF AFSPC-11 spacecraft, April 2018. (Ben Cooper) Falcon 9 supported its first certified USAF launch — carrying the ~$600M GPS III SV01 spacecraft — in December 2018. (SpaceX)

However, there are a lot of additional possibilities for the real subject of SpaceX’s newest sealed suit. Most lately, NASA distributed ~46M one of 11 companies such as studies and prototypes of lunar landers, transport vehicles, and in-space refueling technology. SpaceX tied with Aerojet Rocketdyne to get the most substantial awards from these 11 companies, each receiving funds for a single analysis, while the majority of other awardees were contracted to get multiple studies and/or prototypes. This is a stretch, however.

The most likely alternative to a continuation of SpaceX’s Lucy protest is a lawsuit centered on the USAF’s most up-to-date EELV/NSSL growth contracts and its planned continuation of block-buy launch procurement. Of the four companies involved, Blue Origin and SpaceX have criticized the USAF for a variety of factors. Both did concur, however, in their dislike the USAF’s inexplicable desire to award all launch contracts to 2 victors, despite there being as many as four different launch vehicles which may feasibly compete for all those several-dozen contracts.

The USAF given significant vehicle growth funding to ULA, Orbital ATK (currently NGIS), also Blue Origin. SpaceX was snubbed but is still eligible to compete for Phase two launch contracts. (Teslarati — ULA/NGIS/Blue Origin/SpaceX)

For today, details of SpaceX’s most up-to-date lawsuit will remain sealed, leaving the firm’s motivations veiled in mystery. SpaceX’s second USAF mission could happen as early as June 22nd. Known as STP-2, it will indicate Falcon Heavy’s third flight, the rocket’s first defense-related launch, also the USAF’s first usage of flight-proven SpaceX boosters. If effective, SpaceX will effectively manage to compete with ULA for most conceivable future launch contracts.

Check outside Teslarati’s newsletters for immediate upgrades, on-the-floor perspectives, along with unique glimpses of SpaceX’s rocket launch and retrieval procedures

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