SpaceX sues US government to protest mystery launch or rocket R&D contracts

SpaceX prepares Falcon 9 B1054 for the company's first major USAF launch in December 2018. (SpaceX/USAF)

SpaceX has filed a lawsuit – technically a “Bid Protest Complaint” – against the United States government and successfully petitioned for the file to remain sealed, restricting access to additional case details for the time being.

This development follows a quiet series of bid protests SpaceX filed with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in February 2019, shortly after NASA announced that it had awarded ULA a ~$150M launch contract for Lucy (a robotic Trojan asteroid explorer). SpaceX believed that it could perform the mission at a “dramatically lower” price, potentially saving the federal government tens of millions of dollars. SpaceX withdrew both of its GAO bid protests without comment on April 4th. Whether those prior protests are related to SpaceX’s May 2019 lawsuit is unclear.

Adding even more complexity and uncertainty to the series of events, NASA awarded SpaceX the launch contract for its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft on April 20th, about two weeks after SpaceX retracted its Lucy protests. The cause-and-effect relationship between both events is wholly ambiguous. Perhaps SpaceX withdrew before the company was made aware of their DART win. Perhaps they withdrew their protest because they learned of NASA’s award.

Regardless of what did or did not trigger the contract award, the fact remains that SpaceX’s DART launch will cost NASA ~$70M, less than half the price of ULA’s ~$150M Lucy launch contract. As such, it seems likely that launching Lucy on Falcon 9 could have saved the US government as much as $50M, assuming an expendable profile (~$100M per SpaceX’s latest GPS III launch contracts).

Falcon 9’s upper stage and NASA’s 600 kg DART asteroid impactor. (SpaceX/NASA)

Returning to the topic at hand, the simplest explanation is that SpaceX’s GAO bid protests and May 2019 lawsuit are in some way related. Although SpaceX was clearly correct when it insinuated that it could launch Lucy far more affordably than ULA, the company was criticized for its GAO protests because they effectively froze – or at least complicated – work on the NASA spacecraft. In the event that the withdrawals and lawsuit are related, SpaceX would have backed down after entering into the slow GAO protest process, essentially conceding the contract to ULA and allowing spacecraft work to continue without disruption.

Replaced with a lawsuit against the US government, SpaceX could instead be attempting to change the processes that lead NASA to award ULA the Lucy launch contract in spite of potential savings on the order of ~$50M. SpaceX has done something similar once before when it sued the US Air Force for its uncompetitive launch procurement processes, a largely successful endeavor that has helped force some competition back into USAF/DoD launch contracts.

Atlas V lifts off with the USAF AFSPC-11 spacecraft, April 2018. (Ben Cooper)
Falcon 9 supported its first certified USAF launch – carrying the ~$600M GPS III SV01 spacecraft – in December 2018. (SpaceX)

However, there are several additional possibilities for the actual subject of SpaceX’s latest sealed suit. Most recently, NASA distributed ~$46M among 11 companies for studies and prototypes of lunar landers, transfer vehicles, and in-space refueling technology. SpaceX tied with Aerojet Rocketdyne for the least substantial awards out of those 11 companies, each receiving funds for a single study, while most other awardees were contracted for multiple studies and/or prototypes. This is a stretch, however.

The most likely alternative to a continuation of SpaceX’s Lucy protest is a lawsuit focused on the USAF’s latest EELV/NSSL development contracts and its proposed continuation of block-buy launch procurement. Of the four companies involved, Blue Origin and SpaceX have both criticized the USAF for a variety of reasons. Both did agree, however, in their dislike of the USAF’s inexplicable desire to award all launch contracts to two victors, despite there being as many as four different launch vehicles that could feasibly compete for those several-dozen contracts.

The USAF awarded major vehicle development funding to ULA, Orbital ATK (now NGIS), and Blue Origin. SpaceX was snubbed but is still eligible to compete for Phase 2 launch contracts. (Teslarati – ULA/NGIS/Blue Origin/SpaceX)

For now, details of SpaceX’s latest lawsuit will remain sealed, leaving the company’s motivations veiled in mystery. SpaceX’s next USAF mission could occur as early as June 22nd. Known as STP-2, it will mark Falcon Heavy’s third flight, the rocket’s first defense-related launch, and the USAF’s first use of flight-proven SpaceX boosters. If successful, SpaceX will effectively be able to compete with ULA for all conceivable future launch contracts.

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SpaceX sues US government to protest mystery launch or rocket R&D contracts
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