SpaceX protest halts Air Force satellite launches

Atlas V engine

United Launch Alliance (ULA), the Lockheed Martin/Boeing joint venture that launches satellites and other payloads for the U.S. military, has expressed dismay with a preliminary injunction that for now halts its Air Force launch contract because of U.S. sanctions against Russia.

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims issued a ruling last week preventing ULA from purchasing Russian-made RD-180 engines to power its Atlas V rocket. The ruling stems from a protest filed earlier last week by Elon Musk, CEO of Space Exploration Technologies Inc. arguing for competition in Air Force satellite launches. SpaceX asserted in its complaint that economic sanctions against Russia imposed after its annexation of Crimea prevent the Air Force from doing business with the Russian supplier, NPO Energomash.

"ULA is deeply concerned with this ruling and we will work closely with the Department of Justice to resolve the injunction expeditiously," ULA General Counsel Kevin MacCary said in a statement.

"SpaceX's attempt to disrupt a national security launch contract so long after the award ignores the potential implications to our national security and our nation's ability to put Americans on board the International Space Station," MacCary added.

SapceX in April protested an Air Force contract awarded in December 2013 for 36 satellite launches, arguing that the contract should have been subject to a competition.

ULA attempted to counter the SpaceX gambit with a series of newspaper ads last week touting the reliability of its Atlas V rocket.

Nevertheless, Federal Claims Court Judge Susan Braden prohibited the Air Force and ULA "from making any purchases from or payment of money to NPO Energomash" in an order released last week.

Until the dispute is resolved, the Air Force is considering several options that include building the Russian engine in the U.S. under an existing license or switch to Delta-class rockets that don't use the Russian engine.

For its part, SpaceX wants the Air Force to consider a version of its Falcon 9 rocket to launch military satellites, which SpaceX claims it can do more cheaply.

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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