October 8, 2015 / 9:47 PM / in 4 years

SpaceX raps ULA bid to get U.S. waiver for Russian engines

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, has slammed a bid by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, to get a waiver from a U.S. ban on Russian rocket engines for military use.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk speaks after unveiling the Dragon V2 spacecraft in Hawthorne, California May 29, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of Tesla Motors and chief executive of SpaceX, told Defense Secretary Ash Carter that federal law already allowed ULA to use “a substantial number” of engines.

ULA’s threat to skip an upcoming Air Force competition to launch a GSP satellite unless it got a waiver was “nothing less than deceptive brinkmanship for the sole purpose of thwarting the will of Congress,” he wrote in a letter dated Oct. 5. A copy was obtained by Reuters on Thursday.

Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s chief arms buyer, this week said the Defense Department expects to decide “fairly soon” whether to waive the law to allow ULA to continue using Russian RD-180 rocket engines on its workhorse Atlas 5 rocket.

ULA CEO Tory Bruno told reporters last week that without some relief from the ban, the company would be unable to bid in the GPS satellite competition, or for any other new national security launches until a new American-built engine was ready in 2019.

The ban still affects nine of 29 engines that ULA ordered but had not paid for before Russia annexed Crimea. Bruno said five other engines approved for ULA’s use by Congress last year had already been assigned to other commercial or civil missions, and were not available for use in a bid for the new GPS launch.

A defense policy bill passed by both the House and Senate gives ULA permission to use four of the nine remaining engines, but the legislation faces a veto threat and is unlikely to be enacted before Nov. 16, when bids are due for the competition.

In his letter, Musk said Bruno’s argument was irrelevant since nothing prevented ULA from ordering more RD-180 engines for commercial or civil missions.

ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye had no immediate comment on the SpaceX letter. She said ULA had not placed its typical yearly engine order from Russia’s Energomash due to uncertainty about its ability to use any more of the RD-180 engines, but the company continued to ship the engines that have already been ordered on time and schedule.

Musk said both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate had put limits on use of the engines to gradually reduce U.S. reliance on Russia, at a time when tensions between Moscow and Washington are running high.

A waiver is allowed for national security reasons, but only if “the space launch services and capabilities covered by the contract could not be obtained at a fair and reasonable price without the use of rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation.”

Musk said a waiver was unnecessary since SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, and ULA’s Delta rockets were also available.

ULA has said it plans to discontinue production of all except the heaviest Delta 4 rockets because they are not and cannot ever be competitive with SpaceX’s lower prices.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Richard Chang

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