Military / National Security News
United Launch Alliance (ULA) issued a strongly worded statement today about SpaceX's lawsuit and a judge's ruling yesterday enjoining the government or ULA from buying RD-180 engines from Russia until the court is notified by three government departments that such purchases would not violate U.S. sanctions against Russia.
U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Susan Braden issued the injunction in response to a lawsuit filed Monday by SpaceX protesting a December 2013 contract award from the Air Force to ULA for 36 Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) cores. ULA, jointly owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, uses two EELV rockets -- Atlas V and Delta IV -- to launch just about all of the nation's national security satellites as well as spacecraft for NASA. The Atlas V is powered by Russian RD-180 engines.
The injunction prohibits the Air Force or ULA from making payments to Russia's NPO Energomash, which builds the engines, until the Departments of the Treasury, Commerce and State inform the court that the payments do not violate sanctions imposed by the United States against Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees Russia's space sector.
SpaceX is challenging the award of the EELV contract on a sole source basis instead of allowing competition. The lawsuit does not seek an injunction against the purchase of RD-180 engines, but discussed them in the lawsuit and issued a statement today praising the judge's decision.
In response, ULA said it would work with the Department of Justice to resolve the injunction "expeditiously." It called SpaceX's actions "opportunistic" and an attempt to "circumvent the requirements imposed" on others. It also noted that NASA and "numerous other companies" do business with NPO Energomash, other Russian companies and the Russian government. The full text of the ULA statement is:
“ULA is deeply concerned with this ruling and we will work closely with the Department of Justice to resolve the injunction expeditiously. In the meantime, ULA will continue to demonstrate our commitment to our National Security on the launch pad by assuring the safe delivery of the missions we are honored to support.
“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. Just like ULA, NASA and numerous other companies lawfully conduct business with the same Russian company, other Russia state-owned industries, and Russian Federation agencies. This opportunistic action by SpaceX appears to be an attempt to circumvent the requirements imposed on those who seek to meet the challenging launch needs of the nation and to avoid having to follow the rules, regulations and standards expected of a company entrusted to support our nation's most sensitive missions.”
A U.S. Federal Claims Court judge issued an injunction last night that prohibits the Air Force or United Launch Alliance (ULA) from purchasing RD-180 engines from Russia until the Department of Treasury, Department of Commerce and Department of State determine that it does not violate U.S. sanctions. The ruling was made in response to a lawsuit filed eariier this week by SpaceX over the Air Force's block buy of rockets from ULA although this was not one of the remedies SpaceX sought.
The three page injunction issued by Judge Susan Braden on April 30 cites Executive Order 13661, which places Russian Deputy Prime MInister Dmitry Rogozin on the list of individuals sanctioned because of Russia's actions in Ukraine, and April 28 restrictions on exports announced by the Departments of State and Commerce. Rogozin is in charge of Russia's space sector.
Consequently, Judge Braden ruled that the public interest and national defense and security concerns that underlie E.O. 13661 "warrant issuance of a preliminary injunction" that prohibits the Air Force and ULA from making "any purchase from or payment of money to NPO Energomash or any entity ... that is subject to control of Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin" until the court receives an opinion from the Departments of Treasury, State and Commerce that they do not "directly or indirectly contravene" the Executive Order. She added that the injunction does not apply to purchase orders already placed or money already paid to NPO Energomash.
SpaceX agreed with the action: "The U.S. Court of Federal Claims took a prudent step toward understanding whether United Launch Alliance’s current sole-source contract violates U.S. sanctions by sending taxpayer money to Russia for the RD-180 engine. That question – as well as others relating to the risks posed by dependence on Russian-made engines and the need to open competition for the Air Force space launch program – are timely and appropriate."
SpaceX filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims on Monday seeking an injunction against the Air Force proceeding with its block buy of 36 launch vehicle cores from the ULA because the contract was awarded on a sole source basis rather than competed.
UPDATE, April 30, 2014: The subcommittee adopted the draft in less than 10 minutes today. Amendments were deferred until full committee markup next week (May 7). Two subcommittee Democrats rued the fact that important issues were not being debated at subcommittee level by the members most knowledgeable about them, but it was apparent a deal had been struck to defer discussion and action to the full committee.
ORIGINAL STORY, April 29, 2014: The Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will markup its section of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act on Wednesday, April 30. A draft of the subcommittee's portion of the bill provides $220 million to DOD to begin development of a U.S.-built liquid rocket engine to replace the Russian RD-180 engines used for the Atlas V rocket.
Tensions over Russia's actions in Ukraine have added visibility to the extent to which the U.S. space program relies on Russia. From crew transportation to and from the International Space Station (ISS) to engines for the Atlas V rocket, which is used to launch national security satellites as well as spacecraft for NASA, the increasing dependence of U.S. space activities on its Cold War competitor but more recent partner has gone largely unnoticed in Congress. Lockheed Martin, which builds the Atlas V, insists that it has a two-year supply of RD-180 engines in stock as a buffer against any change in the geopolitical relationship, but the deteriorating situation is providing impetus to decision makers to make funding available to develop a new U.S. liquid rocket engine.
The subcommittee draft also explicitly supports DOD's December 2013 block buy of rocket cores from the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for the Altas V and Delta IV rockets -- jointly called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs). SpaceX, which is trying to compete against ULA for government launches, filed suit against the Air Force yesterday on the basis that the contract should have been awarded competitively rather than on a sole source basis. The subcommittee draft does direct the Air Force to provide "opportunities" for competition by certified launch providers, but clearly supports the block buy. SpaceX is going through the certification process now.
Other space-related provisions in the draft bill include:
Subcommittee markup is at noon EDT on April 30.
Statements attributed to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin appear to be the first public linkage between tensions over Ukraine and the future of U.S. astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). U.S. officials have repeatedly insisted that the ISS would not be affected by the deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations. This appears to be the first public statement by a Russian official.
Russia's Interfax news agency reportedly quoted Rogozin as saying that "Sanctions are always a boomerang which come back and painfully hit those who launched them." He also reportedly said that if the aim of new sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration yesterday are intended "to deliver a blow to Russia's rocket-building sector, then by default they would be exposing their astronauts on the ISS." The Obama Administration announced restrictions on exports to Russia yesterday for items on the U.S. Munitions List -- which includes commercial satellites -- if they might aid Russia's military. Details were not provided.
Rogozin's comments were in Russian and English translations were reported by a number of western news outlets, some of which also cited remarks along the same lines on Rogozin's Russian-language Twitter account. Alan Boyle of NBC News reports that Rogozin suggested via Twitter that the United States "bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline."
The United States and the other non-Russian partners in the ISS have had to rely on Russian Soyuz rockets and spacecraft to get back and forth to the ISS on a routine basis since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011. The ISS crews also must rely on the Soyuz spacecraft as "lifeboats" in case they need to evacuate the station in an emergency. Today, there are three Russians, two Americans and one Japanese aboard the ISS. NASA continues to report that all is well there. Russia and the United States jointly operate the ISS and it would extremely difficult for one to operate it without the other.
The United States, Europe, Japan and Canada -- all partners in the ISS -- each announced new sanctions against Russia in the past two days because of its activities in Ukraine. CNN has a handy list of the individuals and entities that have been sanctioned so far. None appears to be directly related to space station activities other than Rogozin himself, who was among the first group of Russians sanctioned by the United States in March. As noted, the Obama Administration also is restricting exports to Russia that might aid Russia's military. It also instructed NASA to limit its cooperation with Russia other than for activities that are exempted, such as ISS.
Congressional actions are also reflecting the current tensions. The House Armed Services Committee's Strategic Forces subcommittee is preparing to mark up its section of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act tomorrow. Among other things, it plans to provide $220 million to DOD to develop an American-built liquid rocket engine to replace the Russian RD-180 engines used for Atlas V rockets. Instead of referring to "Russian" engines, though, the language refers to "non-allied." The bill also requires a report from DOD assessing threats to U.S. space operations especially from China and Russia.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, said in a speech yesterday, that the United States is facing "real competition in space" not only from China, but "for the first time since the end of the Cold War, an overtly hostile Russia that is threatening our allies in Europe."
Orbital Sciences Corporation and ATK announced this morning that they will merge into a new company, Orbital ATK, headed by Orbital's President and CEO David Thompson. The deal is expected to close in December 2014.
The merged company will be headquartered in Dulles, VA where Orbital currently is located and will have eight major operating locations in Arizona, California, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia. ATK will spin-off its sporting group to its shareholders, who will hold 100 percent ownership of it. ATK shareholders will own 53.8 percent of Orbital ATK and Orbital shareholders will own the other 46.2 percent. The merger will be a stock-for-stock exchange using the tax-free "Morris" structure.
Calling it a "merger of equals," a presentation from the companies point out the synergies. Orbital develops and manufacturers small- and medium-class space systems, space and suborbital launch vehicles, commercial and scientific satellites, and advanced space systems for national security and human exploration. ATK produces solid rocket propulsion systems for space and strategic applications; precision weapons, missile warning systems and tactical rocket motors; munitions; and composite aerostructures and satellite components.
The merged company will have 13,000 employees and combined revenue of $4.5 billion.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney released a statement this morning (April 28, 2014) announcing that additional sanctions are being placed on Russia because of the situation in Ukraine. Asset freezes on 17 Russian companies and export license restrictions are among the new sanctions.
The statement is general so it is not clear at this point whether any of the actions will affect space-related activities. The relevant part of the statement is as follows:
"The Department of the Treasury is imposing sanctions on seven Russian government officials, including two members of President Putin’s inner circle, who will be subject to an asset freeze and a U.S. visa ban, and 17 companies linked to Putin’s inner circle, which will be subject to an asset freeze. In addition, the Department of Commerce has imposed additional restrictions on 13 of those companies by imposing a license requirement with a presumption of denial for the export, re-export or other foreign transfer of U.S.-origin items to the companies. Further, today the Departments of Commerce and State have announced a tightened policy to deny export license applications for any high-technology items that could contribute to Russia’s military capabilities. Those Departments also will revoke any existing export licenses that meet these conditions."
Later in the day, the White House released a transcript of a telephone briefing in which a few -- but not many -- details were provided. Two members of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle were sanctioned and 17 "entities" that are "affiliated with the oligarchs we designated a few weeks ago, on March 20, including the Rotenberg brothers and Gennady Timchenko."
Perhaps of more direct important to space activities are export restrictions. A "senior administration official" says that export license applications at both the Department of State and Department of Commerce have been on hold since the beginning of March and they are being scrutinized to "see which ones involve technology that the Russian defense industrial complex is in need of, and those are the ones that will be denied." Microelectronics was cited as one example.
Meanwhile, the State Department said that "effective immediately" the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls will "deny pending applications for export or re-export of any high-technology defense articles or services regulated under the U.S. Munitions List ... that contribute to Russia's military capabilities." It also will revoke any existing licenses that meet those conditions. Other pending applications will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
The Obama Administration is in the process of updating export control regulations on commercial satellites, but at the moment they remain on the U.S. Munitions List. Several Russian rockets, including Proton, Soyuz, Zenit (which is partially Ukrainian), and Dnepr, are used to launch satellites that are manufactured in the United States or contain U.S. components. Whether the Administration deems them to "contribute to Russia's military capabilities" is an open question. Two other interesting facets of the issue are that International Launch Services (ILS), which markets the Proton rocket commercially, is a U.S.-based company, and the Soyuz rocket is launched not only from Russia, but from Europe's Kourou launch site in South America a part of a European-Russian arrangement. The United States wants to present a united front with Europe in imposing sanctions, but Europe has not announced its plans yet.
Note: this article was updated at 11:00 pm ET on April 28, 2014.
Here is our list of space policy-related events for the upcoming week and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate will be back in session after a two-week spring break with a full agenda of NASA, NOAA and national security space decisions on tap.
During the Week
House committees and subcommittees will be making decisions on budgets and policy for the nation's space program this week as they mark up appropriations and authorization legislation. (Not sure what a markup is? Or the difference between an authorization and an appropriation? See our fact sheet: What's a Markup? Answers to That and Other Mysteries of the Legislative Process.)
Customarily the House acts on appropriations legislation before the Senate, and, indeed, the Senate Appropriations CJS subcommittee is still holding hearings on FY2015 budget requests for the agencies under its jurisdiction. Its hearing on NASA's request is on Thursday.
Also of interest is a House SS&T Environment Subcommittee hearing on NOAA's FY2015 budget request on Wednesday.
NASA is engaged in a full court press to articulate the outline of the agency's plan on sending humans to Mars and how the Asteroid Redirect Mission fits into it. After meeting with the NASA Advisory Counci a week and a half ago and participating in a three-day Humans 2 Mars summit at George Washington University last week, NASA will hold its own public "exploration forum" at NASA Headquarters on Tuesday afternoon (interestingly, the House SS&T committee is marking up the NASA authorization bill at the same time, which, we imagine, is entirely coincidental).
Lots of other interesting events are scheduled, including a symposium on Capitol Hill sponsored by the American Astronautical Society on Thursday highlighting science experiments conducted on the International Space Station and Women in Aerospace's annual conference on Wednesday featuring top government officials including Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James.
Here's the list of everything we know about as of Sunday morning.
Tuesday, April 29
Wednesday, April 30
Thursday, May 1
Following on the heels of SpaceX's announcement earlier today that it is filing suit against the Air Force for its block buy contract of satellite launches from the United Launch Alliance (ULA), Senator John McCain (R-AZ) sent two letters to the Department of Defense (DOD) asking questions about that contract.
One letter is to Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and the other to DOD's Inspector General (IG). Both are posted on McCain's website.
The letter to James asks about what McCain says is the "apparently incomplete and incorrect nature" of her testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) earlier this month regarding the December 2013 award of a sole source block buy contract of 36 core vehicles from the ULA. SpaceX announced today that it is filing suit against the Air Force for awarding that contract without competition.
McCain says that James's testimony to SASC about the contract appears to be "specious" because she said that it was for "heavier launches" that no new entrant -- e.g., SpaceX -- has been qualified to meet. McCain argues that the Air Force has not stated what missions will be flown with those 36 core vehicles.
The separate letter to DOD's Inspector General asks for an investigation into four issues related to DOD's decision to significantly reduce the number of national security space launches available for competition above the 36 core vehicles in the December 2013 contract. Initially there were to be 14 launches in FY2015-2017 set aside for competition with "new entrants" like Space X, but the number recently was reduced by half. DOD explains that seven of the launches were delayed until past FY2017. McCain questions the rationale for those decisions and whether they support DOD's contention that it is aggressively pursuing competition in procuring launch services as promised.
SpaceX's announcement today that it is filing suit against the Air Force over a launch vehicle contract overshadowed other company news -- confirmation that the reusability test of the Falcon 9 first stage last week was successful.
SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk began a press conference at the National Press Club this afternoon by talking about the "good news" story of the Falcon 9 test before moving on to the news about the lawsuit.
The April 18 launch of SpaceX's CRS-3 cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) included a test of returning the Falcon 9's first stage to Earth and deploying landing legs as though it was returning to land. The goal is for these stages to return and land at Cape Canaveral and be reused. Musk tweeted that day that initial data showed the rocket stage had reignited its engine after separating from the second stage and Dragon spacecraft (which went on to Earth orbit), descended vertically, deployed its landing legs and survived for 8 seconds after reaching the water. Today's comments confirmed that account and provided additional information.
He called the test a "huge milestone ... No one has soft landed a liquid rocket boost stage before." That is true, although NASA routinely recovered space shuttle solid rocket boosters (SRBs) from the ocean and reused them.
A boat hired by SpaceX could not get close enough to see the event or recover the stage. Musk said that another test will take place on the next Falcon 9 launch, a commercial launch for Orbcomm, and laughingly said he was going to hire bigger boats. He also said that the April 18 launch just happened to take place during a huge storm at sea and the landing area was in the deep ocean. He is hoping for better weather for the Orbcomm launch and the rocket stage will drop into the ocean closer to shore, increasing the chances it can be recovered. The rocket stage was destroyed by wave action, Musk said. It was two days before any boat could reach the area and all that was left were pieces of the interstage section, one of the four landing legs and other "bits and pieces."
SpaceX did get some video of the reentry (presumably from an aircraft that was tracking the flight), but the "link was very weak," Musk said today. They are trying to clean it up and will post it on the SpaceX website.
Musk said tests will continue over the ocean until he is comfortable it can land with accuracy. He hopes to be able to return one of these stages to land later this year and is working with the Air Force to identify landing locations at Cape Canaveral. The plan is to refly that stage next year. Eventually, he believes it will be possible to return a stage to land and reuse it the same day. Current SpaceX launch prices do not assume reusability and 70 percent of the cost is associated with the first stage Therefore, prices could drop "as much as 70 percent" in the long run if reusability proves out, but that depends on being able to refly it with minimal work. He also noted that customers need to be comfortable with the idea.
The space shuttle is the only operational reusable launch vehicle ever developed and it never achieved promised economies. Musk repeated what he has said many times -- that reusability will only be cost effective if it is "both rapid and complete." The shuttle was only partially reusable (the large External Tank was not reusable) and turnaround times were months, not weeks or days.
SpaceX Files Protest of Air Force EELV Contract, Continues Criticism of Atlas V Russian Engines - UPDATE
SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk announced today, April 25, that he is filing suit against the Air Force for the contract it awarded to United Launch Alliance (ULA) in December 2013 for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) launches over the next five years. The two EELVs are Delta IV and Atlas V and, in addition to announcing the lawsuit, continued his criticism of the Atlas V because it uses Russian RD-180 engines.
Musk wants to compete against ULA for national security space launches that could be launched using his Falcon rockets -- the existing Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy now in development. He said the block buy contract for 36 EELV cores awarded on a sole source, non-competed basis is "not right." He argued that SpaceX rockets are good enough for NASA and the commercial satellite sector, so why would they not be good enough for launching something "as simple as a GPS satellite."
"The ULA rockets are four times as expensive as ours," he asserted, and therefore the contract is costing U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars more than necessary.
In a press release distributed at the National Press Club event, SpaceX calculates that the average cost of a ULA launch is $460 million based on figures publicly available in budget documentation presented to Congress by the Department of Defense (DOD). By comparison, Musk says that the launch of a Falcon 9 would be about $90 million for the Air Force; about 30 percent higher than the $60 million price to a commercial customer because of "mission assurance" requirements imposed by the Air Force. The commercial price for a Falcon Heavy launch is $135 million, the press release states.
It is impossible to compare those prices to launches conducted for the Air Force by ULA because DOD does not account for ULA costs in a compatible manner, a point that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has criticized for several years. It recently reported that DOD is improving its visibility into the ULA costs, but a per-launch cost or price is not available. One can only look at how much money is requested for EELV launches and divide by the number of launches that year to obtain an average.
Musk also continued to press the case, as he did at a March hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, that the United States should not be using the Atlas V rocket because it relies on Russian-built RD-180 engines. He went so far as to suggest that paying Russia for the engines might violate sanctions imposed by the United States against Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin because of Russia's actions in Ukraine. Rogozin is in charge of Russia's space sector and one of several top Russian officials sanctioned by President Obama after Russia annexed Crimea. "It is hard to imagine that Rogozin is not benefitting personally" from the engine sales, Musk stated.
Musk said SpaceX concluded the lawsuit was "the only option" to bring these matters into the light: "Let the sun shine on this. Sunlight is the best disinfectant."
He also said that the protest is not specifically intended to get launches awarded to SpaceX: "If we compete and lose, that's fine, but why wouldn't they even compete it?"
Musk was asked why he waited so long to file suit, since the EELV contract was awarded in December. He replied that although it was awarded in December, he did not know about it until March, specifically the day after the March Senate Appropriations Committee hearing. He said he did not think it was "an accident" that it only became public at that time.
The contract award was posted on the FedBizOpps website on December 19, 2013, however, and written up in trade publications soon thereafter. SpaceX has not replied to an email requesting clarification on what it was that the company did not know until March.
The day after the Senate hearing DOD officials did reveal in a budget briefing that the number of launches it is setting aside specifically for "new entrants" like SpaceX would be fewer than earlier planned over the next few years. Those launches are in addition to the 36 launches in the December contract, however.
Late on April 25 SpaceX issued another press release summarizing its position and stating that it will formally file the lawsuit on Monday, April 28.
NOTE: This article was updated on April 26, 2014 with the additional information about the new press release and about a new website SpaceX said it was creating, freedomtolaunch.com, where it would post the lawsuit would at noon EDT April 28. This article was updated again on April 28 to remove the clause about the new website. The lawsuit is not posted there and instead of a countdown clock indicating when the website will be launched, there is simply a notice that it will be "launching soon."
NOTE 2: As of May 5, the freedomtolaunch.com website has made no changes despite the fact that the judge in the case has issued two rulings already. That website clearly is not a good source of any information other than a link to the SpaceX press release.