SpaceX accuses its rivals of violating Russia sanctions. Now a federal court agrees.


SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk answers questions in front of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft at the SpaceX Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Tex. ( Duane A. Laverty/ Waco Tribune-Herald via AP)

A federal court has sided with entrepreneur Elon Musk in his bid to challenge top competitors in the space business, blocking aerospace partners Boeing and Lockheed Martin from buying a piece of Russian-made rocket hardware that's critical to their operations.

The injunction, issued late Wednesday by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, agrees with Musk's accusation that Boeing and Lockheed violated White House trade restrictions against Russia when purchasing RD-180 rocket engines from a state-owned corporation. Musk argued at a news conference last week that the U.S. government had improperly granted the two companies' space partnership — a company known as United Launch Alliance — a contract for 36 rocket launches without allowing SpaceX to compete for the job. On Monday, Musk sued the United States over the issue.

The Russian firm, NPO Energomash, makes engines that United Launch Alliance (ULA) needs to put American military satellites, among other Pentagon equipment, into orbit.

Here's the problem with that. NPO Energomash is directly connected to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the country's space program. Earlier this year, the Obama administration named Rogozin as a target of U.S. sanctions. So by selling engines to ULA, the court ruled, Rogozin was illegally benefiting from U.S. money.

In response to the sanctions, Rogozin tweeted on Tuesday that perhaps NASA astronauts should find another way to the international space station — like a trampoline.

The resulting injunction bars ULA from making any further purchases from 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 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."

The injunction marks a big win for SpaceX, and a huge headache for ULA; the contract at issue is worth as much as $9.5 billion. By 2030, the Defense Department anticipates spending $70 billion on space launches.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Brian Fung | May 1