CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. April 25 (Reuters) - Space Exploration Technologies, the privately held company known as SpaceX, said on Friday it filed a lawsuit to protest the U.S. Air Force’s award of a multi-billion-dollar, non-compete contract for 36 rocket launches to a partnership of two long-time aerospace contractors.
The contract, announced earlier this year, “essentially blocks companies like SpaceX from competing for national security launches,” SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said at a press briefing in Washington, D.C., that was also broadcast on a conference call.
SpaceX, which manufactures and launches rockets and spacecraft, is in the process of getting its Falcon 9 rockets certified to fly payloads for the U.S. military.
The company wants the Air Force to reverse the sole-source award of 36 boosters to United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and open the procurement to commercial competition.
“SpaceX is not saying that these launches should be awarded to us,” Musk said. “We’re just protesting and saying that these launches should be competed. If we compete and lose, that’s fine, but why were they not even competed? That just doesn’t make sense.”
SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets already fly cargo ships to the International Space Station, a $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 260 miles (418 km) above Earth, and launches commercial communications satellites into high-altitude orbits.
So far, the Air Force has certified one of three Falcon flights required before SpaceX can compete for military missions.
Musk said he expects SpaceX to be able to fly military payloads for around $100 million apiece -- about one-quarter the price the United States pays for rides on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas and Delta rockets.
“The ULA rockets are basically about four times more expensive than ours, so this contract is costing the U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars for no reason,” Musk said.
The lawsuit comes amid growing controversy about the use of the Russian rocket engines and the Air Force’s slow progress toward a more competitive market for rocket launches.
Air Force Secretary Deborah James told lawmakers earlier this month that she was committed to moving toward competition, but it was important to ensure that SpaceX and other new entrants to the market could safely launch critical national security satellites, which often cost $1 billion or more to build.
Musk also raised questions about the U.S. government’s contract with United Launch Alliance in light of the sanctions imposed by the United States to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula. Musk noted that the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas rocket uses Russian-made RD-180 engines, while the individuals who are the subject of the U.S. sanctions include Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister who is also the head of the country’s space program.
“How is it that we’re sending hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer money at a time when Russia is in the process of invading Ukraine?” Musk said. “It would be hard to imagine some way that Dmitry Rogozin is not benefiting personally from the dollars that are being sent there.”
An ongoing review of the RD-180 engine issues was on track to conclude by May 1, the Air Force said.
The Air Force had no immediate comment on SpaceX’s lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
A spokesman for United Launch Alliance, Mark Bitterman, said the partnership was reviewing the transcript of Musk’s press conference.
Bitterman said the “robust acquisition and oversight process” of the Department of Defense and the partnership’s “improved performance” has resulted in more than $4 billion in savings, compared to prior acquisitions processes.
SpaceX also announced on Friday that the Falcon 9 rocket used to put a Dragon cargo ship into orbit for NASA last week made a successful touchdown on the Atlantic Ocean, before high seas destroyed the booster.
The company is working on technology to land and refly its rockets in an attempt to cut launch costs further.
SpaceX plans to make another water landing when it flies a network of communication satellites for Orbcomm next month. (Reporting by Irene Klotz in Cape Canaveral, Fla.; Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler)