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ULA alludes to SpaceX’s rocket explosion in competition for military contract

Spaceflight shade

USLaunchReport/YouTube

The United Launch Alliance is throwing shade at rival SpaceX in the wake of the company’s latest rocket failure, suggesting that ULA’s vehicles are more reliable for launching Air Force satellites. ULA is making its feelings known as it’s expected to compete with SpaceX for a contract to launch a military GPS satellite. (Those proposals were due on Monday.) ULA, which says it submitted a bid, is arguing that the military should choose the most reliable company to launch the satellite, not the one that offers the cheapest services.

"As recent launch failures have shown, rockets are not commodities."

"As recent launch failures have shown, rockets are not commodities. They are high-risk systems and the consequences of failure are costly and far-reaching," a spokesperson for the United Launch Alliance said in a statement to The Verge. "Our unmatched record of 111 successful launches in a row, coupled with consistent on-schedule performance, has real and tangible value for the taxpayer and the warfighter. That value should be considered as a factor when evaluating launch service options."

ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno seemingly echoed this sentiment in a letter he wrote to the Pentagon earlier this month, in which he urged the Air Force to postpone the deadline for the proposals. In the letter, which was leaked to The Washington Post, Bruno argued that the military should push back the deadline for bids by 60 days so that the cause of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 explosion can be fully known.

He also said SpaceX's two recent Falcon 9 accidents should raise concerns for the Pentagon, according to the Post. Earlier this month a Falcon 9 exploded as it was being fueled on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. And in June 2015, another Falcon 9 rocket disintegrated during a launch to the International Space Station. The incidents haven’t affected SpaceX’s certification to launch military satellites, but Bruno argued that past performance and not just price should be considered by the Air Force when choosing a launch provider.

"This strategy defies both law and logic and puts hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and Warfighter mission needs unnecessarily at risk," he wrote, according to the Post.

ULA's Atlas V rocket during launch. (ULA)

ULA declined to comment on the leaked letter, but instead offered this statement to The Verge: "We believe that a traditional ‘best value’ procurement approach that gives more appropriate weight to critical technical factors in the performance of complex national security launches, such as reliability, schedule assurance, and orbital precision, should be restored and would deliver better value for the government."

SpaceX declined a request to comment and would not confirm if it submitted a bid for the satellite by Monday’s deadline.

Currently, ULA and SpaceX are the only two spaceflight companies authorized to launch military satellites. It’s a new paradigm for the Defense Department, since ULA has basically had a monopoly on military satellite launches for the past decade. That changed in May 2015, when SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket received certification to launch payloads for the Air Force. At the time, the Defense Department said the move was meant to foster competition. "Ultimately, leveraging of the commercial space market drives down cost to the American taxpayer and improves our military's resiliency," secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in a statement.

The two companies haven’t done much competing yet

The two companies haven’t done much competing since SpaceX received its certification, though. When the Air Force requested bids to launch its second GPS-III satellite in May 2015, ULA opted not to submit a proposal. At the time, the company said it would not have a vehicle ready in time for the satellite’s launch in 2018. But a former executive for ULA indicated that the company also wanted to avoid a price war with SpaceX, which offers much cheaper launch options. As a result, SpaceX won the launch contract by default, which was valued at $87.2 million.

After that, ULA said it would compete for this most recent contract, which covers the launch of the Air Force’s third GPS-III satellite in 2019. The Air Force also plans to open bidding on seven more launch contracts through fiscal year 2017. "We are ready to compete and are confident we offer the best value," said ULA. "Creating a level playing field where that value can be fairly evaluated will achieve the government’s goals of saving costs while delivering superior performance."