WASHINGTON — SpaceX chief Elon Musk continued his assault on the status quo, announcing Friday both a milestone in the development of a reusable rocket and a lawsuit to stop the Air Force from awarding a competitor a sole-source, multibillion-dollar contract for military satellites he says his company could launch much more cheaply.
Musk, whose firm transports cargo to the International Space Station for NASA, has made no secret he wants to usher in a new era of cheaper, more innovative space flight. At a Friday news conference at the National Press Club, the co-founder of PayPal and CEO of Tesla Motors outlined his latest efforts to shake things up.
Musk's California company is asking the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which hears disputes on government contracts, to freeze a no-bid Air Force contract that would pay United Launch Alliance to provide as many as 36 rocket booster cores. The hardware is needed to launch national security satellites.
Since 2006, each of 68 space launches for the U.S. Air Force has been handled solely by United Launch Alliance, formed as a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
Over that period, the money Congress has approved for launching national security hardware into space has jumped from $613 million a year to $1.63 billion in fiscal 2014. The Pentagon projects it will cost $70 billion more through 2030.
Musk said Friday the Air Force wrongly awarded the new military satellite contract to United Launch Alliance before his company had a chance to finish the certification process that would allow SpaceX to bid on the multibillion-dollar work.
"This is not SpaceX protesting and saying that these launches should be awarded to us. We're just saying these launches should be competed," he told reporters. "If we compete and lose, that's fine. But why would they not even compete it? That just doesn't make sense."
A spokesperson for the Air Force declined to comment, saying they had just heard about the lawsuit.
The tension between Musk and United Launch Alliance CEO Michael Gass was on full display last month at a hearing before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee examining the cost of launching military satellites.
Gass told senators the current setup works. Each of the 68 launches has been successful, and the way the contract is structured means United Launch Alliance is always available should the Defense Department need an emergency launch. That kind of flexibility could be lost under a more competitive arrangement, he told committee members. And while he said he would welcome competition, he also said it's not clear any other aerospace companies are truly prepared to take over the work.
Musk countered that SpaceX could do the job just as efficiently, and for no more than $100 million per launch, far less than the $380 million United Launch Alliance charges. Gass disputed Musk's math, saying United Launch Alliance's charge reflects overhead costs that any competitor would also have to factor in. Gass also said costs have gone down since 2011, when the Pentagon modified its contract requirements.
Musk said Friday he learned of the new contract the day after the hearing.
He called the timing "remarkably coincidental. I don't think that's an accident."
Musk also reported Friday that the Falcon 9 booster had accomplished a soft ocean landing before rough seas destroyed most of it. It was an experiment that had been given a less than 50-50 chance of success.
"No one has ever soft-landed a liquid rocket booster stage before, and I think this bodes very well for achieving re-usability," he told reporters. "What SpaceX has done so far is evolutionary not revolutionary. (But) if we can recover the stage intact and relaunch it, the potential is there for truly revolutionary impact in space transport costs."
Musk said he expects several more launches this year, offering the company more opportunity to perfect a soft landing that keeps the rocket mostly intact.
The SpaceX CEO also said work is continuing on a pad on the south coast of Texas near Brownsville, which the company hopes to use for launching geosynchronous satellites.
"We're waiting on the final environmental approvals for that," he said. "We expect to get those soon, and we'll probably have the site active in a couple of years."