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ULA executive resigns after comments about SpaceX and 'fiancée' partners

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An executive for private aerospace company United Launch Alliance (ULA) has resigned after making a series of candid comments about the firm's position in the industry and its dealings with partners. Speaking at a seminar at the University of Colorado, Brett Tobey, ULA's vice president for engineering, compared rocket-makers Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne to "two fiancées" that the company was wooing simultaneously, and claimed that ULA had refused to bid against SpaceX for a government contract because of fears it would trigger a "cost shootout."

Tobey's commentary offers an insight into a business being slowly upended by competition from private firms. His description of competing contractors as a "super-rich girl" and a "poor girl" that ULA is stringing along with "planned rehearsal dinners [...] and all the rest" also rankles in what is still a male-dominated industry and that often excludes women.

ULA is the incumbent; SpaceX is the challenger

His other comments suggest that there is no love lost between ULA and SpaceX, with Tobey claiming that CEO Elon Musk even pushed for legislation in Washington that would damage ULA's business. ULA is joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and has been the sole contractor for US military space launches for years. Recently, though, the company has been challenged by firms including SpaceX, which offer launches at much cheaper costs

ULA's chief executive Tory Bruno announced Tobey's resignation in a statement this morning. "The views, positions and inaccurate statements Mr. Tobey presented at his recent speaking engagement were not aligned with the direction of the company, my views, nor the views I expect from ULA leaders," said Bruno. ULA added that this statement was "in response to all comments" made by Tobey.

Tobey's description of ULA declining to bid for government work contradicts previous statements from ULA, reports Reuters, with the company originally stating that it declined the bid because it didn't have enough Russian-made RD-180 engines for a launch. The RD-180s became difficult to acquire after a temporary congressional ban on their purchase was passed in 2014. Tobey claimed that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had engineered the ban to damage the company.

"[Musk] starts attacking us in Washington," said Tobey, according to a recording of the seminar uploaded online by SpaceNews, from around 9:30 in. He describes how the Russian-made RD-180s are disliked by Senator John McCain, adding, "and so Elon Musk goes, 'Why don't you go after United Launch Alliance and see if you can get that engine to be outlawed.' So he was able to get legislation through that basically got our number of engines down that we could use."

Tobey describes Musk and SpaceX's entry into the industry as "[changing] the game completely," with the company building rockets that focus on cost rather than reliability and flexibility. He adds that the government can't afford ULA's prices anymore though (despite their spotless launch record), and the company is having to restructure to fit into the changing market. "As a taxpayer this an exciting time," says Tobey. "The amount of money that has been pumped into the aerospace industry based on these private billionaires... I think it's really really good for the industry as a whole."