The world’s increasingly enmeshed space launch industry has one more factor to consider as it struggles to accommodate the geopolitical uproar over Russia’s Crimean adventure. His name is Elon Musk.

Musk continues pushing hard to become the spaceflight mogul of the 21st century, suing the U.S. Air Force in an attempt to break into the national security market in the near term, while plotting a longer-term shift to reusable launches that has the “revolutionary” potential to change the way humans and their stuff leave the planet.

His strategy includes stocking his Washington operation with more defense lobbyists and tapping Capitol Hill allies for help in his once-quixotic battles against the powers that be in the military industrial complex.

Meanwhile, engineers at his Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) factory and flight control center in Hawthorne, Calif., are on an envelope-expansion path to refly a medium-lift first stage this year, after achieving a soft-landing vertical touchdown under rocket power with the stage used to send the latest load of cargo to the International Space Station for NASA.

“That’s a really huge milestone for SpaceX and certainly for the space industry,” Musk says. “No one has ever soft-landed a liquid rocket boost stage before, and I think this bodes very well for achieving reusability.”

While enticing the Air Force with advances in reusability, Musk is also playing hardball. “We found out when everyone else did,” said a service spokesman about the SpaceX lawsuit.

In a complaint filed April 28 in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, the company charges the Air Force unfairly shut it out of competition for the work, at a cost to taxpayers of $1 billion a year that it says the service could save by using Falcon 9 variants. The block buy, hashed out after years of wrangling between the service and Congress, was intended to reduce the more expensive approach of buying launches singly. It would potentially allow Space X to compete for seven launches set aside over the next five years for new entrants, provided they are certified to carry national security payloads.

In announcing the lawsuit Musk moved beyond his fair-competition complaint into geopolitics, suggesting “there’s a good probability of some sanctions violation” in the wake of Russia’s Ukrainian aggression because the Atlas V flies with a Russian-built RD-180 rocket engine.

One of the individuals sanctioned by the U.S., Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, holds the space-industry portfolio in the Russian government (see page 26). “It would be hard to imagine some way that Dmitry Rogozin is not benefiting from the dollars that are being sent there,” Musk says.

“This seems like the wrong time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kremlin,” he told reporters at a Washington press conference April 25.

The sanctions charge drew a temporary injunction April 30 from a claims court judge, who blocked new RD-180 purchases until the Treasury, Commerce and State departments certify that they do not violate the sanctions against Rogozin. 

Despite his fiery rhetoric on the EELV competition, Musk says the service has been “really helpful and supportive” in identifying places at Cape Canaveral AFS where future Falcon 9 first stages can return and land vertically. That may be becoming more likely, following promising results from a flight test of software and procedures designed to make the Falcon 9 a partially reusable launch vehicle.

Telemetry indicated the first stage used to send the company’s Dragon cargo carrier toward the International Space Station April 18 slowed to a vertical soft landing before touching down in the Atlantic north of its Cape Canaveral launch site.

“The data is very clear,” Musk says. “It shows a soft landing. It shows deployment of the legs and that the stage was in a safe state in the water.”

Coming only one day after a successful vertical-landing test of a production-representative recoverable Falcon 9 v1.1 first stage at the SpaceX facility in McGregor, Texas, achieving “zero velocity at sea level” clears the way for successive envelope-pushing flight tests later this year (AW&ST April 28, p. 25).

Delivering his one-two punch at the National Press Club, Musk argued that SpaceX has met the three-flight requirement with the Air Force configuration for its Falcon 9 launcher but was shut out of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) competition that gave United Launch Alliance (ULA)—the Boeing/Lockheed Martin joint venture set up in 2006 to fulfill the Air Force’s EELV requirement—36 launches of its Atlas V and Delta IV core vehicles.

“I think the reasonable thing to do would be to cancel the 36-core contract, wait a few months before certification is complete, and then conduct a full competition,” Musk said. “I think that would be in the best interests of the American public by a huge margin.”

Defense Department officials have said canceling the current block-buy contract would cost an estimated $370 million in termination liability, according to an April 25 letter from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to Pentagon Inspector General Jon Rymer. It would also drive up the cost of purchasing cores, which the Air Force would be left to do on a per-mission basis, including for launches requiring more mass-to-orbit capability than the Falcon 9 v1.1 has.

Musk invited other potential competitors to join his company’s lawsuit and spent $174,000 on lobbying in the first quarter of this year, adding defense-issue lobbyists Michael Herson and Jeff Green to a stable that has long included international legal powerhouse Patton Boggs LLC for NASA issues. The beefed-up lobbying team apparently is achieving results on Capitol Hill. After Musk announced his lawsuit, McCain, a longtime critic of Air Force procurement practices, asked Rymer to investigate the Air Force’s EELV awards. McCain calls the service’s rationale for limiting competitive launches “specious” in a letter to Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James.

Musk says ULA’s two rockets are out of date compared to the Falcon 9. “We have the advantage that our rocket was designed and the factory was built in the 21st century,” Musk said. “Atlas V and Delta IV were designed in the ’90s and in fact have a lot of legacy hardware that stretches back to the ’70s and ’80s, even before, if you count the RL-10” upper-stage engine.

He also questions the cost of the ULA launchers. “I don’t know why their rockets are so expensive. They’re insanely expensive, on the order of $400 million a flight, all things considered,” he says. “So in our case, our commercial price is $60 million, and we expect roughly a $30 million increase due to Air Force mission assurance requirements, and that seems to be bearing out. So, yes, it makes our rocket 30% more expensive, but it doesn’t make it 400% more expensive.”

Overall, SpaceX argues it could save the Air Force “at least $1 billion per year, depending on flight rate, versus ULA.” ULA disputes Musk’s $400 million figure, saying it was improperly based on fiscal 2015 budget items divided by the three vehicles to be procured in the coming fiscal year and included a “government support” line for new entrants.

“It is important to remember that SpaceX is a new entrant into the launch business,” says Brig. Gen. Roger Teague, Air Force Space Command director of plans, programs and analyses. “We are in the process of getting them certified—a process that they signed up for—and we are working aggressively . . . toward that objective.”

In his letter to James, McCain agrees with Musk’s assertion that SpaceX has met Air Force certification requirements for the Falcon 9. In January, a Falcon 9 v1.1 completed the third of three missions needed to make the rocket eligible for Air Force certification. So far, the service has certified only the first of these three flights. In addition, other new-entrant criteria are still being evaluated, such as SpaceX engineering and accounting practices.

A ULA spokesman cites the Pentagon’s 2014 Selective Acquisition Report in arguing that “the [Defense Department’s] robust acquisition and oversight process and [ULA’s] improved performance enabled over $4 billion in savings as compared to prior acquisitions approaches.”

As lucrative as the EELV-class contract could be to SpaceX, it would pale in comparison to the claimed savings with a reusable first stage. Musk notes that fuel, oxygen and other expendable liquids in the rocket amount to just 0.3% of the cost of a Falcon 9 mission and says there is potential to lower cost by a factor of more than 100, assuming a high launch rate and the ability to fully and rapidly reuse the entire rocket, including its first and second stages.

“This is a difficult thing to achieve,” he says. “A lot of people in the aerospace industry think it’s not possible, and most in industry have given up on it. But we think it’s possible.”

Among the doubters is Christophe Bonnal, head of launchers at French space agency CNES, who says his agency has studied “optimistic” flight rates of around 50 per year, assuming a single payload and quips that “under the best conditions we could save 10% of the launch costs, plus or minus 15%.”

One of the most challenging aspects of reusability, he says, is the weight penalty added by hardware and propellant. He says the latter means reserving 30% of first-stage fuel in order to return a booster to the launch site.

“You end up designing much larger vehicles, with landing gear, with legs or wings, so it’s heavier and you need more propulsion, at least 25-30% more propulsion on the stage,” Bonnal says, adding that a previous study by CNES and Russian space agency Roscosmos looked at the feasibility of making the Ariane 5 solid-rocket boosters liquid-fueled and reusable but scrapped the idea after the hardware grew too large.

Teague is circumspect about the potential of reusability for national security launches. “We have got to look at what that future market looks like, who the future providers might be and what capabilities they will bring,” he says. “I consider reusability a specific attribute—a unique attribute that SpaceX brings to the table—but we have got to evaluate that.” 

Listen to Aviation Week editors in our Check 6 podcast discuss the impact on the space sector of SpaceX’s new technology and lawsuit as well as U.S. sanctions on Russia.
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