SpaceX calls NASA launch contract with "enormously" the price of official protest


SpaceX officially filed a protest with GAO after NASA awarded its competitor United Launch Alliance a contract to launch Lucy, an interplanetary probe to explore a unique asteroid belt grouped around the orbital band of Jupiter.

Announced on January 31, SpaceX estimates that NASA has taken a decision contrary to the best interests of the agency and US taxpayers by rewarding ULA's $ 148 million launch contract for Lucy, price that society has judged "much more advantageous". [expensive]"That the offer presented at the contest.

With performance roughly equivalent to that of SpaceX's Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket in a reusable configuration when launching from a low Earth orbit (LEO) to a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), the Atlas variant V401 from ULA is the simplest version of the family of rockets with the lowest performance, including no solid rocket propellant. According to the company's "RocketBuilder" tool, Atlas V 401 was listed with a base price of $ 109 million in 2017. The SpaceX Falcon 9 is listed with a base price of $ 62 million for a mission with Recall recovery, while the excellent value The launch (for a USAF GPS III satellite worth about $ 530 million) was awarded at a cost of $ 83 million. Three GPS III launch contracts were subsequently awarded for $ 97 million each.

Compared to almost all short-term launch contracts imaginable on the horizon, SpaceX's GPS III launch contracts act as a kind of worst price for Falcon 9, where the customer requires extraordinary mission insurance and where the rocket must be spent at full launch. In other words, NASA would probably be able to get from Falcon 9 the reliability, performance, and assurance of the desired / requested mission for perhaps $ 50 million less than the cost of the launch proposed by ULA, which is equivalent to a reduction of more than a third of the price. label. The Lucy spacecraft, which is part of NASA's Discovery program, will be capped at $ 450 million (excluding launch costs), which means that choosing SpaceX over ULA alone could reduce the total cost of the mission. a minimum of 8 to 10%.

"Since SpaceX started launching missions for NASA, this is the first time that the company has challenged one of the agency's award decisions. SpaceX has proposed a highly confident solution to the success of its mission at a price considerably lower than the amount of compensation. Therefore, we believe that the decision to pay much more to Boeing and Lockheed for the same mission was therefore not in the best interest of the agency. American taxpayers. "SpaceX, February 13, 2019

The fact remains that the mission Lucy faces a particularly difficult launching trajectory, offering only one launch window of about three weeks, after which the mission as conceived effectively becomes impossible. Missing this window could therefore cost NASA hundreds of millions of dollars in retouching and delays, or even resounding outright cancellation of the mission. NASA and ULA have thus defined the launch contract award and a premium of around 50% depending on what ULA considers to be the "leading certainty in scheduling". Excluding ULA's other rocket, Delta IV, Atlas V has proven itself in compliance with the launch targets set. However, the "timeline certainty" of SpaceX's Falcon 9 continues to improve as the launch vehicle matures.

Admittedly, although Falcon 9 has improved significantly in terms of reliable launch within 5 to 10 days after its static firing test on the base, SpaceX has always struggled to launch payloads in less than a week or two target customers. Whatever the case may be, it will take more than two and a half years before October 2021, leaving space for SpaceX and dozens of launches on dozens of Falcon 9 launches to reach a level of operational maturity. and stability design comparable to Atlas V, a rocket that has changed at least 16 years and 79 launches.

In October 2010, NASA awarded ULA a contract valued at $ 187 million for the launch of its MAVEN Mars orbiter on Atlas V 401. In December 2013, ULA won a $ 163 million contract for the Launch of NASA's InSight Mars Reader on Atlas V 401. In January 2019, ULA won a contract for NASA's Lucy satellite at a price of $ 148.3 million for the launch of the 2021 Atlas V 401 satellite. In simple terms, unless ULA uses a dart board and a blindfold to determine the prices of launch contracts or aggressive inverted inflation, the very existence of SpaceX is already fueling the flames of competition, especially when start-up contracts are directly competitive with their parent agencies or their companies.

Whether SpaceX's protest is entirely justified or something, we can guarantee that the fact that SpaceX is there to compete with ULA has forced the company to reduce the price it would otherwise have by $ 20 to $ 40 million. willingly charged NASA. A saving of about $ 50 million would certainly not be the worst thing for the American taxpayer, but it is not the end of the world either.

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