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SpaceX sticks with lawsuit over launch competition

SpaceX says it will keep pursuing its lawsuit against the federal government as well as its rivals in the launch industry, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, even though it’s been cleared for billions of dollars in contracts for national security space missions.

Both sides in the long-running dispute laid out their positions in a notice filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Aug. 14, a week after the U.S. Space Force announced that United Launch Alliance and SpaceX were the winners in a competition for future launches.

Leading up to that decision, the Air Force provided hundreds of millions of dollars in development funding for ULA as well as Blue Origin and Orbital Sciences Corp. (now part of Northrop Grumman). SpaceX was left out but protested the awards.

In this month’s filing, SpaceX said the funding gave ULA an “unwarranted advantage” and called for the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center to “rectify” its errors, presumably by providing more funding for SpaceX.

Lawyers for the federal government and ULA said the competition for development funding was decided fairly. They said no rectification was warranted, especially considering that SpaceX proposed its Starship super-rocket for development funding but ended up offering a different launch vehicle  — a modified Falcon Heavy rocket — for the Space Force’s future heavy-lift launches.

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ULA and SpaceX win shares of Space Force launches

The U.S. Space Force designated United Launch Alliance and SpaceX as the winners of a multibillion-dollar competition for national security launches over a five-year period, passing up a proposal from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture in the process.

Northrop Grumman and its OmegA rocket also lost out in the Phase II competition for the National Security Space Launch program.

ULA will receive a 60% share of the launch manifest for contracts awarded in the 2020-2024 time frame, with the first missions launching in fiscal 2022, said William Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics.

SpaceX will receive the other 40%.

The competition extended through the creation of the U.S. Space Force, whose Space and Missile Systems Center will be in charge of executing the launches in partnership with the National Reconnaissance Office.

The five-year Phase II program provides for fixed-price but indefinite-delivery contracts, which means there isn’t a specified total payout. But Roper said it’d be reasonable to estimate that somewhere around 32 to 34 launches would be covered, which would translate to billions of dollars in business.

Three launches were assigned today: ULA is scheduled to launch two missions known as USSF-51 and USSF-106 for the Space Force in 2022, while SpaceX has been assigned USSF-67 in mid-2022.

ULA’s two contracts amount to $337 million, and SpaceX’s contract is worth $316 million. Roper said details about the payloads are classified.

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X-37 space plane begins shadowy orbital mission

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket launched a Boeing-built X-37B space plane today on a semi-secret orbital mission under the management of the recently created Space Force.

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Space Force’s first official orbital mission begins

AEHF-6 launch
United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket launches the AEHF-6 military communications satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (ULA via YouTube)

The first satellite mission conducted under the name of the U.S. Space Force got underway today with the launch of the AEHF-6 military communications satellite atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

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Starliner space taxi falls short on first flight

Starliner launch
Boeing’s Starliner space taxi lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. (NASA Photo / Joel Kowsky)

Boeing’s Starliner space taxi blasted off for the first time today on an uncrewed mission to the International Space Station, but ran into a problem that precluded a space station rendezvous.

The anomaly is sure to complicate preparations for the crewed Starliner mission that’s supposed to follow up on the uncrewed test flight. But NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the crewed mission could go ahead as planned without first having to do another uncrewed test.

“I think it’s too early for us to make that assessment,” Bridenstine said at a post-launch news conference.

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Vulcan rocket chosen for 2021 moon launch

Vulcan rocket illustration
An artist’s conception shows United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket lifting off. (ULA Illustration)

United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket – and Blue Origin’s next-generation BE-4 rocket engine – have been chosen to send Astrobotic’s Peregrine moon lander as well as Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser mini-shuttle to the final frontier in 2021.

Neither of the past week’s announcements is all that surprising, because Astrobotic and SNC both had previous agreements to use ULA’s current-generation Atlas 5 rocket. But both announcements underscore the importance of holding to the current schedule for rolling out the BE-4 as well as the Vulcan, which is designed to use two BE-4 engines on its first-stage booster.

Blue Origin, the privately held space venture founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is thought to be in the final stages of testing the BE-4’s performance – not only for ULA’s Vulcan but also for its own orbital-class New Glenn rocket, which is also due for its maiden flight in 2021.

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Blue Origin protests launch contract rules

New Glenn rocket
An artist’s conception shows Blue Origin’s future New Glenn rocket, which is currently due to have its first flight in 2021. (Blue Origin Illustration)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is protesting the rules of the game for awarding future national security launch contracts, while continuing to play against SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and Northrop Grumman.

All four companies have submitted bids in the second phase of an Air Force competition aimed at selecting vendors for launches in the 2022-2026 time frame.

In the first phase of the competition, the Air Force said it would set aside as much as $2.3 billion to support the development of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, ULA’s Vulcan rocket and Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket. All those rockets are scheduled to enter service in the 2021 time frame.

However, the Air Force said it would reduce the field to two companies next year. Moreover, SpaceX – which didn’t qualify for development funds in Phase 1 – is joining the field for Phase 2 with its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, both of which are already flying.

In May, SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the federal government, complaining that it was unfairly left out of the Phase 1 awards and left at a disadvantage for Phase 2. Back then, the other three companies disputed SpaceX’s claims and supported the Air Force’s Phase 1 arrangement.

Today, it was Blue Origin’s turn to protest: The company said it filed a pre-award bid protest with the Government Accountability Office, claiming that it would be unfair for the Air Force to reduce the field to just two companies.

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SpaceX launches satellite (and catches nose cone)

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from its Florida launch pad. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched a Boeing-built, Israeli telecommunications satellite called Amos-17 into geosynchronous transfer orbit today, adding to what’s shaping up as a largesse of liftoffs.

The launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida came at 7:23 p.m. ET (4:23 p.m. PT), toward the end of an 88-minute launch opportunity that was marked by weather concerns. This was a makeup launch for Spacecom, the Israeli satellite operator that lost its Amos-6 spacecraft when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad in 2016.

Amos-17 is designed to provide enhanced voice, video and data services to customers in Africa and parts of Europe, the Middle East, India and China.

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Filings reveal details of SpaceX rocket lawsuit

BE-4 engine test
Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine, shown here during a test firing in Texas, is being developed for use on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket as well as United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. (Blue Origin Photo)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and subsidiaries of United Launch Alliance and Northrop Grumman are intervening in a SpaceX lawsuit protesting $2.3 billion in rocket development awards to those three companies.

In a redacted version of the lawsuit, originally filed on May 17 and made public today, SpaceX says it was unfairly passed over when the awards were made last October — and disparages the three companies’ rocket projects.

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Spy satellite goes into orbit after monthlong delay

Delta 4 Heavy liftoff
United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 Heavy rocket lifts off from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, sending the NROL-71 classified payload into space. (ULA Photo)

The National Reconnaissance Office’s latest classified spy satellite, NROL-71, was launched today by a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket into California’s sunny skies.

Today’s trouble-free countdown at Vandenberg Air Force Base came in contrast to the string of technical glitches that held up liftoff by more than a month.

The original launch date had been set for Dec. 7, but the technical issues — including concerns about a hydrogen leak on one of the engine sections — forced repeated delays. One memorable delay came just as a fireball was sighted over the region, sparking a momentary mystery.

Plenty of mystery still surrounds the NROL-71 mission: Outside experts suspect that the payload could be the first of what’s known as the Block 5 KH-11 spy satellites — next-generation cousins of the Hubble Space Telescope that are tasked with watching Earth rather than the heavens.

Neither United Launch Alliance nor the NRO is saying anything on that score.

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