In a footnote in its
lawsuit against the Air Force, serial entrepreneur Elon Musk’s aerospace company raises an important point about the military’s satellites: They are getting old, and someone is going to have to get their replacements into orbit.
SpaceX is suing the Air Force for allegedly awarding a contract for 36 rocket launches to United Launch Alliance — a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin — without a competitive bidding process.
But because of a multi-decade effort to replace the U.S. government’s ageing satellite fleet, there will be a lot more launches beyond those 36. If SpaceX has its way, those launches will take place in an environment where the federal government will have to adapt to a changing aerospace industry by considering newcomers like SpaceX for lucrative launch contracts.
The footnote appears in a section of the complaint asserting that planned reductions in launches will entrench United Launch Alliance’s alleged monopoly:
Even with these launch cancellations and setbacks, the Air Force will still have little choice but to modernize its satellite fleet in coming years. Twelve operational satellites currently in orbit are classed as “legacy satellites” and were launched between 1997 and 2004 with an expected 7 1/2 year design lifespan. Here’s what the government’s satellite fleet looked like February of 2014, according to GPS.gov:
There have been plans to update the fleet. In 2000, then-president Bill Clintonunveileda multi-decade modernization effort that would effectively replace these “legacy” systems.
The government introduced a phased plan to replace them with next-generation GPS III satellites. Here’s what the schedule looked like in 2012:
This timeline was made before the program delays and launch cancellations that SpaceX lawyers described in the above footnote.
Still, SpaceX is attempting to open up competition for launches at a time when the government is in the midst of a multibillion-dollar effort to upgrade its orbital assets.
SpaceX’s lawsuit is about the Air Force’s allegedly non-competitive bid processes for a specific group of launches. But it’s also a way of putting the federal government on notice that as the U.S.’s presence in space changes, the domestic aerospace industry is changing along with it.
In an email, Jessica Rye, a spokeswoman for United Launch Alliance, previously told Business Insider that its contract was a good deal for the government. She said that “the military’s robust acquisition and oversight process and the company’s improved performance led to more than $US4 billion in savings compared with prior acquisition approaches.”
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