Elon Musk Wants SpaceX to Replace Russia as NASA's Space Station Transport

Elon Musk in Washington on April 25 Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images

SpaceX, the rocket and space exploration company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, filed a protest against the U.S. Air Force this week, saying that the military has unfairly prevented it from competing for space satellite launches.

The following day, Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, who is targeted by U.S. sanctions over Ukraine, suggested that America may need to find a large trampoline to continue NASA’s access to the International Space Station. Since the space shuttle’s retirement, the U.S. pays Russia about $71 million per seat to fly U.S. astronauts to the station. The current ISS mission, Expedition 39 (pdf), has two Americans among the six-person crew.

Musk knows a PR opportunity when he sees one. On Tuesday night, he tweeted:

In May 2012, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket successfully sent the company’s Dragon spacecraft into orbit to dock with the International Space Station, which has been followed by subsequent trips to carry cargo to and from the ISS. The ISS crew will send cargo back to earth on May 18 aboard the Dragon. SpaceX plans its first Dragon test flight with humans as early as 2015. The final design is expected to carry seven astronauts to and from the ISS.

Musk, also the founder of electric car maker Tesla Motors, established SpaceX in 2002 as part of his broader mission to make other planets habitable by humans—a long-term goal, to say the least. But to fund its research into rockets and other technologies, the company relies largely on NASA for contracts to serve the ISS. The Pentagon’s routine launch of military satellites is another potential source of income and a catalyst for SpaceX’s recent legal action.

In its bid protest, filed April 28 at the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, SpaceX contends that the Air Force’s contract to purchase 35 rockets from the United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, did not allow other bidders. SpaceX says each ULA space launch costs taxpayers $400 million, four times the price of its own launches and twice what other nations spend to launch their missions. “This legal action seeks to shine a spotlight on an issue that has gone unchecked since 2006, when the ULA monopoly was formed—the lack of competition in the national security launch market,” SpaceX said Tuesday in a blog posting.

United Launch Alliance says its “block buy” contract with the Air Force saved taxpayers $4 billion and that it has successfully launched 81 consecutive missions for customers, including the Air Force, NASA, and the National Reconnaissance Office. The Centennial (Colo.) company said the launch contract involves “hundreds of suppliers” and would cost billions to cancel.

SpaceX also raised the current U.S.-Russian contretemps over Crimea as a potential further reason (pdf) the Air Force should reconsider its contract with the Boeing-Lockheed Martin unit. From its website:

“The contract is made even more egregious in light of deteriorating US relations with Russia. The majority of EELV launches are performed by ULA’s Atlas family of launch vehicles, which use the RD-180 rocket engine. The RD-180 is made in Russia by NPO Energomash, which is owned and controlled by the Russian government. The Russian space and defense industries are led by Dmitry Rogozin, the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia. Rogozin is on the United States’ sanctions list as a result of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. As the U.S. contemplates additional sanctions against the Russian defense sector, it is incongruous and damaging that ULA continues to send millions of dollars to Russian controlled entities to support U.S. national security. Given international events, this seems like the wrong time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kremlin—especially considering there are domestic alternatives available and qualified to compete today that do not rely on components from countries that pose a national security risk.”

Musk appears ready to do his part for the new Chilly War.

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