The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

SpaceX’s lawsuit against the Air Force is gaining steam

Elon Musk unveils SpaceX's new seven-seat Dragon V2 spacecraft, in Hawthorne, California. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

A federal judge has ordered a review of a U.S. Air Force contract to put dozens of military satellites into orbit. The contract, which was awarded to longtime federal partner United Launch Alliance, is being contested by SpaceX over claims that the bidding process was non-competitive.

In a filing this week, Judge Susan Braden of the Court of Federal Claims said that United Launch Alliance, or ULA, would need to hand over details of a contract with the U.S. Air Force that it secured last year. The terms of the agreement are expected to shed light — behind closed doors, anyway — on the cost to taxpayers of using United Launch Alliance's rockets.

The decision marks an early victory for SpaceX, which in April sued the government and accused it of simply giving the $11 billion dollar contract away without providing ample opportunity for competition. The Defense Department expects to spend as much as $70 billion on the wider launch program by 2030 — but SpaceX has claimed it can put payloads into orbit for far cheaper than ULA.

ULA is a joint partnership between aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin; the company has helped the Pentagon launch payloads into space for years. Because of contracting failures in the 1990s, the military is skittish about entrusting its satellites to other launch providers. In April, access to Russian-made rocket engines were temporarily suspended over concerns that the purchase of Russian rockets violated U.S. sanctions against the country — bringing the future of the U.S. space launch business into question — but a federal court lifted the injunction in May on the government's appeal.

SpaceX's launch vehicles don't rely on Russian-made engines. It's argued that because of its domestic production base, it should be the natural choice for the U.S. Air Force moving forward. But the Air Force has delayed giving SpaceX the ability to compete for launch contracts, citing "anomalies" in recent flight tests.

SpaceX didn't get everything it wanted with the court's decision this week. It had called for an outright cancellation of the 36-rocket contract. Still, the fact that the court is taking a closer look at the ULA contract is a good sign for Musk's company.

Correction: The original version of this post reported that U.S. purchases of Russian-made rocket engines were blocked by a court due to U.S. sanctions. That injunction has since been lifted.