Don't expect dancing unicorns any time soon in the Pad 39A flame trench. Image source: SpaceKSC.com.
The week has seen two defeats dealt to the opponents of NewSpace.
In June, Orbital Sciences sued United Launch Alliance, claiming ULA has illegally prevented the sale of the RD Amross RD-180 engine in the United States by claiming exclusive rights in this country. ULA uses RD-180s on the Lockheed Martin Atlas V. Orbital hoped to acquire the RD-180s for its Antares rockets, which currently use a limited supply of Russian N-1 engines left from their lunar program in the early 1970s.
ULA responded in November, claiming RD Amross can't legally sell to Orbital, and Orbital hasn't proven any actual loss.
The judge rejected ULA's request on December 10 and ordered the parties to prepare for pre-trial conferences in attempt to negotiate a settlement.
The other NewSpace win came today when the Government Accountability Office rejected a Blue Origin protest claiming NASA had improperly conducted its search for a company to lease Kennedy Space Center's launch pad 39A.
In May, NASA issued an Announcement for Proposals (AFP) seeking potential future commercial users for 39A. NASA was open to either a single user or multi-user concept, so long as it was in the best interests of NASA and the lessor took over responsibiity for the pad.
NASA was already in informal negotiations with SpaceX, when Blue Origin submitted a competing bid. SpaceX intends to use 39A for both the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, with NASA the intended primary customer. Blue Origin claimed it would manage the pad as a multi-user facility, although it admitted it has no need for the pad in the next five years.
What seemed like a clean fight turned dirty in September, when Blue Origin filed a pre-emptive protest with the GAO, claiming NASA was improperly conducting its evaluation of the competing bids.
ULA submitted a letter backing Blue Origin's complaint, and for good measure five U.S. Senators who have benefitted from ULA campaign contributions sent a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden supporting Blue Origin. Several observers, including me, suspect that ULA recruited Blue Origin to file the complaint as an attempt to thwart SpaceX from ending the ULA launch monopoly here in the United States.
All the below-the-belt punching was for naught, as today the GAO rejected Blue Origin's claims.
In the final analysis, we agree with the agency that the AFP contemplates two possible approaches, but includes no preference for one approach versus another. The approaches are different — and require the presentation of different information to substantiate the plan being offered — but there currently is nothing in the record beyond the protester’s arguments to show that either approach necessarily is better in terms of meeting the agency’s objective of achieving the fullest commercial use of space. Simply stated, that question will be resolved based on the comparative strength of the business cases presented by the offerors.
However, the case at hand only concerns whether the agency’s interpretation of the AFP is reasonable and, based on our discussion above, we conclude that nothing in the language of the AFP favors one approach over the other.
The protest is denied.
In September, SpaceX founder Elon Musk called the Blue Origin complaint a “phony blocking tactic.” His e-mail to Space News stated:
From a SpaceX standpoint, we view [Blue Origin] and [United Launch Alliance’s] action as a phony blocking tactic and an obvious one at that. BO has not yet succeeded in creating a reliable suborbital spacecraft, despite spending over 10 years in development. It is therefore unlikely that they will succeed in developing an orbital vehicle that will meet NASA’s exacting standards in the next 5 years, which is the length of the lease. That said, I can’t say for sure whether [Blue Origin’s] action stems from malice. No such doubt exists about ULA’s motivation.
However, rather than fight this issue, there is an easy way to determine the truth, which is simply to call their bluff. If they do somehow show up in the next 5 years with a vehicle qualified to NASA’s human rating standards that can dock with the Space Station, which is what Pad 39A is meant to do, we will gladly accommodate their needs. Frankly, I think we are more likely to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct.
After today's ruling, the path seems cleared for SpaceX to lease 39A. And no unicorns will dance in the flame duct any time soon.
Related articles:Florida Today “Blue Origin Loses Protest Regarding Lease of KSC Pad 39A” NBC News “Bezos' Blue Origin Rocket Venture Fails to Stop NASA's Launch-Pad Plan” Parabolic Arc “Blue Origin Loses GAO Appeal Over Pad 39A Bid Process” Space News “GAO Denies Blue Origin’s Bid Protest of Pad 39A Lease” SpacePolicyOnline.com “GAO Denies Blue Origin's Protest Re NASA's Launch Complex 39A”