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SpaceX leads in launch competition, by default

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the DSCOVR satellite in February. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX is poised to win an Air Force national security launch contract by default because its archrival, United Launch Alliance, has dropped out of the competition.

ULA said this week that it decided not to bid on the Air Force contract for launching a GPS-3 satellite in 2018, leaving SpaceX as the sole bidder. The contract was the first of its kind to come up since the Air Force certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch national security payloads.

Reuters quoted ULA’s chief executive officer, Tory Bruno, as saying that the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture couldn’t submit a compliant bid because of a federally mandated ban on the use of Russian-built RD-180 engines for national security launches. ULA uses the RD-180s on the first stage of its Atlas 5 rocket, which has traditionally been used for such launches. A defense authorization bill currently under consideration in Congress includes a provision that would give ULA access to four more of the engines, but that bill has not yet been signed into law.

Bruno also told Reuters that the criteria for bid selection don’t give ULA enough credit for its record of reliability and schedule certainty, and that the accounting procedures for separating the funds for GPS-3 from other government contracts were too onerous.

Monday was the deadline for submitting a bid for the GPS-3 launch. SpaceX declined to comment on the prospects for the contract, which is thought to be worth in the neighborhood of $70 million to $80 million.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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