Sen. John McCain, center, opened a March 17 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing by asking Defense Secretary Ash Carter to investigate controversial statements that cost a ULA executive his job. Credit: DoD/Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is asking the Defense Department to investigate comments made earlier this week by a now-former United Launch Alliance executive.

At the beginning of a hearing Thursday of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain, the committee’s chairman, asked Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to look into “disturbing statements” made by Brett Tobey, vice president of engineering at ULA, during a public seminar Tuesday at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Tobey emphasized cost as the main reason ULA did not bid on a GPS-3 launch contract last fall, telling his audience the Air Force “was not happy with us not bidding that contract because they felt that they’d bent over backwards to lean the field in our advantage, but we even said we don’t bid because we saw it as a cost shootout between us and SpaceX.”

ULA acknowledged last fall that the competition’s so-called Lowest Cost Technically Acceptable structure put Atlas 5 at a disadvantage, listing it between Pentagon accounting requirements and internal concerns about its authority to procure Russian RD-180 rocket engines for future Atlas 5 launches as its reasons for sitting out the GPS-3 competition.

Tobey also was critical of McCain, telling his audience that the senator’s unrelenting focus on ending the Air Force’s dependence on the RD-180 was causing heartburn for senior Lockheed Martin executives and Pentagon officials alike.

Tobey said that when Marillyn Hewson, chief executive of ULA parent company Lockheed Martin, meets with top DoD officials to discuss the F-35 fighter, the Littoral combat ship and other big-ticket Pentagon programs, “the first thing that’s going to come out of the DoD leadership’s mouth when she walks in the door is,’What are you doing with that damn RD-180 engine? I’m sick of McCain attacking us.’

“So she’s got this much of her budget that’s been taking up this much of her emotional energy when she goes in to see the leaders across the board. And so they’re trying to figure out, how do we silence McCain? Do we get a different rocket out there? They’ve invested $1.2 billion in American-made engines and they’ve even talked about, ‘Hey, let’s not use the Atlas anymore, let’s use the Delta, in single-stick or Heavy, to launch the rest of our satellites.’ The problem is, that carries a $1 billion or $2 billion budget. Is it worth $1 billion or $2 billion of taxpayer money just to silence McCain?”

ULA promptly disavowed Tobey’s comments and the 32-year Lockheed Martin veteran resigned from the Lockheed-Boeing joint venture Wednesday after his talk was posted by SpaceNews.

McCain, for his part, doesn’t seem inclined to let the matter go.

“This Committee treats with the utmost seriousness any implication that the Department showed favoritism to a major defense contractor or that efforts have been made to silence members of Congress,” McCain told Carter at the start of Thursday’s DoD posture hearing. “Mr. Secretary, I expect that you will make a full investigation into these statements and take action wherever appropriate.”

Brian Berger is editor in chief of and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...