SpaceX suing to overturn denial of Air Force Launch Services Agreement (LSA)

SpaceX lost out on an Air Force Launch Services Agreement (LSA) to three competitors: ULA; Blue Origin; and Northrop Grumman. Each of the other three got contracts. SpaceX unsuccessfully protested administratively and recently filed a complaint in the Court of Federal Claims.

Some source files on the SpaceX complaint  are given below.

It’s hard to write anything detailed because we do not have access to the Air Force decision document, although SpaceX makes several references to errors in it.

I was reasonably familiar with what went on in Boeing’s protest of the Air Force KC-X contract. After that fiasco, one would think that the Air Force would not screw things up.

This is much different from the KC-X competition in that KC-X involved a limited number of very objective criteria/standards and parameters of actual aircraft that those standards could be applied to.

The LSA award involves a large number of fairly nebulous criteria and highly subjective speculation about meeting them.

In general, SpaceX’s complaint is well written and persuasive. Some of the Air Force decision logic is clearly bizarre.

One example of strangeness relates to the fact that the three winners are to be whittled down to two in Phase 2. Blue Origin has certain overlapping technologies with the other two winners. ULA is using a Blue Origin first stage engine and Blue Origin is using Northrop Grumman boosters. Thus, if Blue Origin moves on to Phase 2, it will be sharing a very significant source of project risk with the other winner. Thus, the program loses a key aspect of the redundancy and fault tolerance of having two providers.

Another example involves the  Air Force being skeptical of SpaceX’s horizontal vehicle integration (assembling the rocket horizontally and then uprighting it for launch). But the Air Force counts this twice against SpaceX. First, they count horizontal integration as a program risk, then in the financial analysis they include the cost of adding vertical integration to SpaceX’s proposal which would moot the program risk.

Either SpaceX will win or I have another chapter in my book ”Everything I learned in Law School has been crapped upon by the last 20 years”.


6 thoughts on “SpaceX suing to overturn denial of Air Force Launch Services Agreement (LSA)”

  1. When I read this, the phrase which kept popping into the back of my mind was “defence industrial base”. This is basically about handing out government money to fund R&D by the launch providers. Viewed from that standpoint, SpaceX doesn’t need the money since they already have two operational systems which are certified for national security payloads. The others are not yet flying and presumably could use the money to get there sooner. But they can’t say that, so they gin up a justification based on largely imagined programme risks to cut SpaceX out of the subsidy.

    This is much like the justification for paying ULA between three and four times as much as they pay SpaceX for launches in order to protect “assured access to space” (having multiple providers with independent technology so a stand-down by one won’t shut you down). The same thing is going on in the NASA commercial crew procurement, where not only are they paying Boeing twice as much per seat, they paid at least twice as much in R&D subsidy.

  2. I should also note that the whole “Category C” payload requirement in the solicitation looks rather dodgy. These are very heavy payloads (37,500 lbm to polar orbit and 14,500 lbm to GEO) which are not scheduled for launch before 2025 and 2026 respectively—in other words, no current missions require this capability and no existing launcher can launch them.

    These basically appear to be tailored to require a liquid hydrogen upper stage if you’re going to deliver the payload directly to the specified orbit (as opposed to launching the satellite with a kick stage on a rocket such as Falcon Heavy, as is done when launching heavy commercial satellites). This excludes existing SpaceX launchers, but creates a requirement which can be met by the paper rockets of the other competitors, which have cryogenic upper stages. The reason SpaceX had to bid Starship for this requirement is that it has plenty of capacity to do the mission, both because it is so large and because its methane/LOX upper stage has higher Isp than the Falcon upper stage.

    By forcing SpaceX to bid its paper rocket for these few out-year missions, they were then able to say, “look, they’re all bidding paper rockets, and SpaceX’s is higher risk”.

    This gives off the same odour as the Air Force Space Shuttle design reference missions 3A and 3B [PDF] from 1973, which required a launch from Vandenberg, once-around, and land after one orbit, presumably releasing a satellite or weapon with no warning or grabbing an adversary satellite. This requirement created the very high cross-range specification for the shuttle, which forced the high wing loading and thermal stress that necessitated the ceramic tiles. NASA’s requirements could be met with a much more robust system with less cross range. This was essentially the Air Force trying to kill the shuttle by imposing impossible design requirements on it (payload bay size, up and down mass, cross range), which ended up not killing the shuttle but killing 14 astronauts as a result of design decisions it forced.

    I don’t want to sound like a SpaceX fanboy, but from the protest, this procurement really seems to stink. I agree we shouldn’t judge it without seeing the decision document.

  3. ctlaw:
    Either SpaceX will win or I have another chapter in my book ”Everything I learned in Law School has been crapped upon by the last 20 years”.

    Let’s face it: these decisions are political rather than being purely based on technical and cost considerations. One can only speculate about what kind of logrolling or corruption may have been involved.

    What you learned in law school is tangential to understanding this decision. The only successful approach to reducing corruption in government is to have less government. If there is a consensus that certain endeavors require government involvement for whatever reason, we must accept a certain level of corruption to accompany it. It’s collateral damage.

  4. Docket.

    There is a 8/15/2019 hearing on the US motion to dismiss .

    The motion is jurisdictional/procedural and does not address the errors asserted by SpaceX. The government asserts sovereign immunity. It asserts this was not a procurement contract which would be subject to judicial review.


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