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Pentagon investigating United Launch Alliance over former executive’s SpaceX remarks

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The Department of Defense's office of inspector general has opened up an investigation into the United Launch Alliance over "assertions" made by a former executive of the private aerospace company last week, according to a memorandum released today. The comments, made by vice president of engineering Brett Tobey, covered ULA's competition with SpaceX and how the company plans to stay afloat in today's burgeoning spaceflight industry. This investigation seems to have been sparked by one of Tobey's comments that implied the Defense Department has been biased toward ULA in awarding military launch contracts.

The comments implied the Defense Department has been biased toward ULA

During a talk at the University of Colorado, Tobey discussed how ULA opted not to bid on a launch contract for the GPS-III military satellite in November. ULA's decision effectively gave the contract to SpaceX by default, as it's the only other launch provider authorized to transport military satellites into space. Tobey implied that the Defense Department was upset with ULA's choice to opt out. "The government was not happy with us not bidding that contract, because they had felt that they'd bent over backwards to lean the field in our advantage," said Tobey, according to an audio recording uploaded by Space News.

ULA's CEO Tory Bruno denounced the comments and Tobey resigned from his position the day following the talk. But despite his departure, the Office of Inspector General will still look into those statements. "At the request of the Secretary of Defense, the OIG DoD has opened an investigation regarding assertions made by United Launch Alliance’s former Vice-President of Engineering relating to competition for national security space launch and whether contracts to ULA were awarded in accordance with DoD and Federal regulations," wrote Randolph R. Stone, the deputy inspector general for policy and oversight at the Defense Department, in a memorandum today. Stone said the investigation would include "site visits, interviews, and documentation review."

The United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, has essentially been the sole provider of military satellite launches for the past decade. But ULA's monopoly on the industry is threatened by the emergence of SpaceX. The company, helmed by Elon Musk, was authorized to launch military satellites in May 2015. That means there are two private spaceflight companies with the potential to send the Defense Department's probes into orbit. Tobey's comments addressed SpaceX's rise as a competitor and how ULA is struggling to compete with SpaceX's cheaper launch costs.

Tobey's assertions about the Department of Defense weren't his only controversial statements from the talk. He also implied that two of ULA's business partners, Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne, were like two fiancées that needed to be wooed. The two companies are making rocket engines that can replace the Russian engines in ULA's premiere Atlas V vehicle, but ULA has not decided yet which engine will win. "Blue Origin is a super-rich girl, and then there is this poor girl over here, Aerojet Rocketdyne," said Tobey. "But we have to continue to go to planned rehearsal dinners, buy cakes, and all the rest with both."


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