Musk Questions Integrity of U.S. Air Force Certification Process, Draws Rebuke from ULA 

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Updated Jan. 16 at 1:28 p.m. EDT

PARIS — SpaceX founder Elon Musk, returning to a subject he has addressed before, on Jan. 13 said delays in the U.S. Air Force certification of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket are the result of Air Force personnel dragging their feet so as not to offend United Launch Alliance, which now has a monopoly on military satellite launches.

In an audio interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Musk also said he is creating a satellite design plant in Seattle that will employ about 60 people at the outset before growing to several hundred. The idea, he said, is to shake up the satellite production industry in the same way that SpaceX has shaken the launcher sector.

Elon Musk looks on as U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski signs a June 2013 agreement. Credit: U.S. Air Force/ Joe Juarez
Elon Musk looks on as U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski signs a June 2013 agreement with SpaceX. Credit: U.S. Air Force/ Joe Juarez

Musk portrayed his Hawthorne, California-based company as a small fighting force going up against Denver, Colorado-based ULA and the combined lobbying might of ULA’s shareholders, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

SpaceX in April filed a lawsuit challenging the Air Force’s award last year of a sole-source contract to ULA for up to 36 launch vehicle cores. The judge presiding over the case recently ordered the parties to try and resolve the dispute through mediation.

“The people fighting it [Falcon 9 certification to bid for military launches] are really in the bureaucracy of the Pentagon, and the procurement officers, who then go and work at Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the prime contractors – which has actually happened,” Musk said.

“It’s easy to understand from a  game theory standpoint. Essentially we’re asking them to award a contract to a company where they are probably not going to get a job, against a company where their friends are. So they’ve got to go against their friends, and their future retirement program. This is a difficult thing to expect.”

Musk’s comments did not sit well with ULA. In a written statement to SpaceNews, ULA General Counsel Kevin MacCary said:

“ULA is aware of the comments recently made by Mr. Musk to Bloomberg News and subsequently published in Space News, and we take great offense at his gross aspersions regarding the integrity of our company, its corporate partners, and the dedicated men and women of the United States Air Force that are committed to ensuring the security of this nation. More importantly, we believe Mr. Musk’s comments about the case pending in the Court of Federal Claims has flagrantly violated the Court’s repeated admonitions to the parties not to discuss the litigation in the media.  ULA has and will continue to respect the court’s direction, and we will not attempt to litigate the dispute in the press.”

The Air Force recently announced that its elaborate new-entrant rocket-certification process for the Falcon 9 likely will take until the middle of this year. Air Force officials had hoped to complete the process by the end of December, which would have made SpaceX eligible to win what was supposed to be a competitive contract to launch a U.S. spy satellite.

NASA is managing its own Falcon 9 certification process and also expects to have its work done by midyear – in time to launch a U.S.-European ocean-altimetry satellite.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is used to launch cargo to the international space station on a commercial basis but has not been certified to carry high-value NASA satellites. While NASA and the Air Force are coordinating their certification processes, these efforts are independent.

In any event, Musk did not mention NASA’s certification process in his interview.

Musk said the combined lobbying power in Washington of Boeing and Lockheed Martin is such that “if they send them all out, the skies darken. They have entire buildings. We have half of one floor. If this were simply a matter of lobbying power, then we would have no chance.”

Musk conceded that at SpaceX, which has grown to slightly more than 4,000 employees, about one-third of the workforce comes from established aerospace companies including Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Musk said the recent decision by Blue Origin, a company formed by Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, to join forces with ULA to build a rocket engine “is a compliment of sorts [to SpaceX], if all our competitors are going up against us. Clearly there are some strange bedfellows there. I’m not sure Blue Origin understands how stringent the Defense Department’s requirements are for a new engine. They’re really quite intense.”

Editor’s note: ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno commented Jan. 14 via Twitter on Musk’s Bloomberg Businesweek interview: