United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, is hitting back against Elon Musk’s rocket company, SpaceX, in the middle of a nasty dispute between the two companies.
That dispute arises from a lawsuit SpaceX filed against the Air Force over its decision to award a long-term contract to launch national security-related satellites to ULA. The Air Force awarded this lucrative contract without entertaining bids from competitors like SpaceX, the lawsuit alleges.
The legal fight got uglier after Musk implied that ULA bribed an Air Force official to give it a no-bid contract. Boeing and Lockheed have hardly remained passive amid these accusations.
Shifting the terms of debate. On Tuesday, Houston Chronicle science reporter Eric Berger tweeted a graphic that ULA was distributing at a Boeing showcase in Florida.
This “scorecard” illustrates that ULA has completed far more launches than SpaceX. However, SpaceX’s claims against ULA and the government have little to do with the number of launches the two companies have completed relative to one another. Rather, SpaceX argues that its technology is at least comparable to ULA’s yet didn’t get fair treatment from the Air Force’s procurement officials.
ULA and its parent companies have had a far greater number of successful launches to their name than SpaceX. A graphic like this takes the focus off of technology and cost and shifts it to industry experience — effectively holding SpaceX’s startup ethos against it.
The legislative fix. At Ars Technica, John Timmer argued that a recent provision in a NASA funding bill enables Congress to regulate aerospace startups like SpaceX out of competition for government contracts:
Richard Shelby (R-AL) has added a small clause that would require all the competing companies to engage in a specific form of cost tracking. Doing so is far more easily dictated than done, based on this description of the accounting methods.
Boeing, as a regular government contractor, already has a system in place for tracking costs in a compatible manner. The [other] companies, however, do not and would have to face the costs of adding it. [Eric] Berger also suggests that the new requirement might force the entire contracting process to be repeated.
This regulation deals with a highly technical issue that falls outside the attention or even the understanding of most of the general public. It also presents a significant potential obstacle to aerospace newcomers.
This kind of legislation favours established companies without attracting much in the way of public criticism. The Ars Technica article noted that Shelby’s home state of Alabama is home to a large Boeing facility. That aerospace giant may have some influence over lawmakers like him, as it spent nearly $US15 million on lobbying in 2013.
A certification process that doesn’t favour newcomers. The government has certified ULA to carry its payloads, but SpaceX is still in the early stages of the certification process.
The head of Lockheed Martin’s space division approached the issue in these stark terms during an interview with the Financial Times today, saying, “The government has a certification process that I think everybody ought to adhere to.”
But certification isn’t quite this straightforward. The Air Force has only ever certified one company to launch its military and spy satellites: ULA. As Keith Cowing, a former NASA astrobiologist and blogger for NASA Watch explained to Business Insider, this very limited experience stacks the certification process against potential newcomers.
“ULA has been launching rockets the traditional way since forever and that’s the basis on which the Air Force and NASA builds their accreditation,” Cowing said. “If someone comes along with a new or possibly better way of launching rockets you have an immediate conflict because the old way of doing things is how the new way is going to be evaluated.”
The aerospace giants are stressing their pedigree and experience, while using the legislative process to their advantage. At the same time, SpaceX is attempting to drastically change the government’s approach to industry newcomers.
It’s a battle that’s being fought in the legislative, legal, and public relations arenas. It’s also a fight that doesn’t seem likely to end anytime soon.
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