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ULA executive resigns after committing the gravest sin: speaking his mind

An Atlas V rocket carrying the Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft is rolled from the Vertical Integration Facility to a launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida late last year. (United Launch Alliance via AP)
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UPDATE, March 18: Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said he had referred the matter to the Pentagon's Inspector General. In a statement, the Pentagon said that he "is concerned by recent statements regarding competition for national security space launch" and referred the matter to the independent watchdog after consulting with Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's chief weapons buyer and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James. 

The IG said it is "reviewing the matter for appropriate action."

Along with standing on the left side of the Metro escalator (if it's working), one of the biggest faux pas in Washington is making the mistake of speaking your mind. And so when an engineering executive at a top defense contractor let loose for an unfiltered hour in comments that were recorded and posted on the Internet, his employer suddenly found itself in crisis management mode, forced to follow a familiar script.

First the United launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, disavowed the comments as "ill advised." Then came the notice that the executive, Brett Tobey, had resigned.

Speaking at a forum, Tobey was decidedly off script, saying that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) "basically doesn't like us" and that the Pentagon was "trying to figure out, how do we silence McCain." That juicy tidbit came as he was talking about the fight over the ULA's use of a Russian-made engine, which McCain had been trying to limit. The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee had been successful--until, as Tobey correctly pointed out, Sen. Richard Shelby, of Alabama, where ULA has a manufacturing site, "parachuted in in the middle of the night" and eased the restrictions.

For years, ULA had a monopoly on launching Pentagon and intelligence community satellites. But then along came Elon Musk's SpaceX, which offered the government a much more affordable way to space and was suddenly able to compete with the ULA for the lucrative launch contracts.

Faced with its first competition late last year, ULA declined to bid for the most recent contract, saying it did not have the necessary engines or the accounting structure in place. ULA also said that it feared the Pentagon would place a premium on price, as opposed it its successful launch history, giving SpaceX an advantage. And Tobey amplified that point by saying bluntly, "we saw it as a cost shootout between us and SpaceX.”

He also said that government officials were not pleased when ULA decided to bow out, “because they had felt they’d bent over backwards to lean the field to our advantage."

In a statement issued late Wednesday evening, Tory Bruno, ULA’s chief executive, said the comments “were not aligned with the direction of the company, my views, nor the view I expect from ULA leaders.”

“We welcome competition and have been transforming the company to address the future of the space launch industry,” the company said.

McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, was in high dudgeon on Thursday, telling Defense Secretary Ashton Carter at a hearing: "This committee treats with the utmost seriousness any implication that the department showed favoritism to a major defense contractor or that efforts have been made to silence members of Congress. Mr. Secretary, I expect that you will make a full investigation into these statements and take action wherever appropriate."