WASHINGTON — Rocket maker Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) has challenged a U.S. government launch services order placed with Orbital Sciences Corp., arguing that under U.S. federal law the contract should have been competitively awarded.

On Sept. 14, the U.S. Air Force issued a task order to Dulles, Va.-based Orbital to launch NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft using surplus missile hardware, according to an Oct. 26 protest filed with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). Orbital has been launching government satellites with rockets based on ballistic missile motors since 2000.

LADEE would be launched in May 2012 aboard a Minotaur 5 rocket, which utilizes decommissioned Peacekeeper missile motors. The five-stage rocket, the largest of the Minotaur family, has yet to make its debut.

Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX believes it can provide the launch services with either its Falcon 1e or Falcon 9 rocket at a cost savings to the government, according to documents obtained by Space News. The Air Force never inquired with SpaceX as to whether it could meet the mission’s requirements, the company said.

The protest could revive a long-running but recently dormant policy debate over whether the use of excess missile hardware to launch satellites undermines the U.S. commercial space industry.

SpaceX claims Orbital’s contract award violates the Commercial Space Act of 1998, which among other things requires the U.S. government to buy launch services from U.S. commercial providers whenever possible. Exceptions can be made on a case-by-case basis provided the secretary of defense certifies to Congress that the requirements of the mission in question preclude the use of commercial services. SpaceX argues that Orbital cannot be considered a commercial provider in the case of LADEE because it is using government-issued hardware.

The law also states that ballistic missiles cannot be used for space launches unless the secretary of defense certifies their use will result in cost savings to the government. SpaceX claims using the Minotaur 5 for this mission will not result in cost savings for the government, and that the government made no attempt to seek out alternative providers before issuing the contract.

SpaceX said that as of Oct. 14, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had not signed off on any of the required certifications related to this launch. Cheryl Irwin, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, could not confirm by press time whether he has since made these certifications.

LADEE is a 330-kilogram spacecraft that will be placed into a highly elliptical orbit from which it will execute a series of maneuvers that will take it to the Moon. Based on the published mission requirements, SpaceX believes it can perform this launch in one of two ways: It could outfit its Falcon 1e rocket with an additional commercial upper stage, or it could use its larger Falcon 9 rocket, on which LADEE would fly as a secondary payload.

The Falcon 1e, set for its first launch in 2010, is an upgraded version of the Falcon 1 rocket that has had two successful launches after failures in its first three attempts. The Falcon 9 is slated to make its debut launch in the first quarter of 2010.

SpaceX argues that by the time LADEE is set to launch in 2012, the Falcon 1e and Falcon 9 rockets will have flown multiple times, while the Minotaur 5 will not have conducted any launches. However, Orbital has eight launches booked for its Minotaur 4 rocket, which is similar to the Minotaur 5 but uses two Peacekeeper motors instead of three. The first Minotaur 4 launch was scheduled for earlier this year but has been delayed by technical concerns.

The GAO has 90 days to review the protest. Neither SpaceX spokeswoman Cassie Kloberdanz nor Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski would comment on the matter.

Meanwhile, the Air Force appears intent on fully integrating the Minotaur family of rockets into its emerging operationally responsive space mission. Operationally responsive space refers to the ability to quickly augment or replace on-orbit capabilities. 

In an Oct. 16 memo providing guidance on the use of small launch vehicles, Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command, said, “The Minotaur family of launch vehicles provides a moderately responsive and more cost-effective small launch capability.”

The memo, a copy of which was obtained by Space News, said the Air Force has sufficient quantities of Minuteman-2 missile motors to launch smaller versions of the Minotaur well into the future. The Peacekeeper-based variant, he said, is expected to be available only until the middle of the next decade.

“We must operationalize this capability now by normalizing manpower, programmed funds, sustainment and support equipment while beginning future replacement planning,” Kehler said.