More Good News for SpaceX and a Billion Dollar “Subsidy” for ULA

Image Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s really good Tuesday, which saw the company win a potential $2.6 billion dollar share of NASA’s
Commercial Crew program was also highlighted by an advance in another of the company’s long sought goals.

Amid all the publicity surrounding the NASA award,  Space News reported that the Air Force believes the company could be certified to perform EELV launches by December 1st. That date is a change from a previous estimate which did not anticipate approval until March 2015.

The comments came from the new head of Air Force Space Command General John E. Hyten,  who took over the position from General William L. Shelton in August. Following what was at times a contentious relationship between Shelton and SpaceX, which is suing the Air Force over the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program’s controversial block buy of 36 United Launch Alliance cores,  Hyten seemed to strike a more conciliatory tone stating (from the SN article) that “he loves the idea of competition and roots for SpaceX to succeed in its quest for national security launch dollars. But he cautioned that “if they’re not ready, we have to stand up and say that.”

Currently the lawsuit is in court ordered mediation, with both sides restricted from making public comment.

If SpaceX is granted clearance, it could open the door to a first ever EELV award, possibly for a National Reconnaissance Office payload for which bids were due in August.  As it is, SpaceX is still on course to launch its first ever DOD award on a Falcon 9, that of NOAA’s DISCOVR satellite, or Deep Space Climate Observatory. Originally called Triana, or “Goresat” in reference to former Vice-President Al Gore who pushed for the spacecraft, it has been in storage since being shelved by the Bush Administration. Though an EELV class payload with the Falcon 9 launch funded by the Air Force, it was ordered under the more relaxed Orbital/Suborbital Program OSP-3 as a test mission for SpaceX to be performed in advance of any EELV missions. The launch is expected to take place in January.

On a related note, and in a measure of just what a financial challenge SpaceX is facing, the Air Force awarded the latest in the long running series of ULA Launch Capability Contracts this morning. Coming in at just under $1 billion dollars for FY 2015, the contract, which SpaceX as well as many others deem a subsidy, (ULA insists it is not) has been one of the major points of criticism aimed at ULA, which receives the funds regardless of how many launches are performed in any given year.

Neither SpaceX nor any other prospective EELV New Entrant will be eligible for the same “subsidy” which as the NASA OIG reported in 2011 (pdf. p.11), has the unambiguous effect of supporting non-EELV ULA launches as well. In other words in addition to competing against Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation in the Commecial Crew program yesterday, SpaceX was also competing against a DOD provided award, benefit, or subsidy, whatever you choose to call it, which is provided to the ULA Atlas V and not the Falcon 9.

Here is the text of the DOD award:

“United Launch Services LLC, Littleton, Colorado, has been awarded a $938,372,859 modification (P00048) to previously awarded FA8811-13-C-0003 cost-plus-incentive-fee contract for fiscal 2015 EELV launch capability for the Delta IV and Atlas V families of launch vehicles. This contract provides for mission assurance, program management, systems engineering, integration of the space vehicle with the launch vehicle, launch site and range operations, and launch infrastructure maintenance and sustainment. Work will be performed at Littleton, Colorado; Vandenberg Air Force Base, California; and Cape Canaveral Air Station, Florida, with an expected completion date of Sept. 30, 2015. Fiscal 2014 missile procurement funds in the amount of $231,831,252 are being obligated at the time of award. The Launch Systems Directorate, Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles Air Force Base, California, is the contracting activity.”

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