At issue is an Air Force proposal to award a bulk buy of 40 launches over five years to United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing that is now the government’s sole provider of medium- and heavy-lift rockets for civilian and military satellites. The Air Force has budgeted about $10 billion for the program during that period.
Musk casts his campaign as a David-vs.-Goliath struggle in which SpaceX, which has completed only two launches of satellites, would bring innovation and potential savings.
“We’re just engineers here,” he said, as he walked out of a meeting Oct. 4. “We’re trying to make a case for a fair competition, but we’re up against the two biggest defense contractors in the world. They’re ganged up against us.”
The Air Force calls its rocket initiative the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV program. The service plans a procurement strategy that will commit the Defense Department to a minimum of eight launches a year for a total of 40 through fiscal 2016, yielding a projected savings of about $830 million from earlier cost projections. The average for the past four years has been about six launches a year.
Jessica Rye, a spokeswoman for ULA, said the company “has been consistent in our message,” which supports the government opening about 20 percent of its launch needs to competition while reserving the rest for a “block buy.”
The split would “be a prudent buying practice to protect against any potential satellite delays,” Rye said in an Oct. 6 e-mail.
In his attempt to spur more competition, Musk has supporters on Capitol Hill.
“The block buy was intended, in part, to reduce launch costs but it is not clear whether this contract will actually save the taxpayers’ money when compared to a full and open competition,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, where SpaceX is based, wrote in an Oct. 4 e-mail.
The Senate intelligence committee, of which Feinstein is chairman, said in a report accompanying the 2012 intelligence authorization bill that the “monopolistic state of EELV providers” was “particularly troublesome” and recommended that the Air Force reduce the launch quantity to, at most, five a year for no more than four years.
The Air Force’s budget for the EELV program, excluding spending for the Navy and the National Reconnaissance Office, which manages the nation’s spy satellites, is projected at $9.88 billion from fiscal 2012 through fiscal 2016, according to service figures. That’s $3.48 billion, or 54 percent, more than a projection made last year covering the same period.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said he is troubled by those figures.
“The system we have now is way too expensive and is getting more expensive and is forcing American space companies to go to other countries to get launched,” he said in an Oct. 4 interview. “That’s unacceptable to me.”