Lawmakers Seek Review of U.S. Air Force Decision Not to Award Funding to SpaceX

BFR in flight. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceNews reports that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) are seeking an independent review of the U.S. Air Force’s decision to award contracts to Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems and United Launch Alliance for the development of new launch vehicles. California-based SpaceX was not awarded any funding.

In a Feb. 4 letter addressed to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Feinstein and Calvert — both with strong ties to the space industry — argue that the path the Air Force has chosen to select future launch providers creates an unfair playing field. Although SpaceX is not mentioned in the letter by name, it is clear from the lawmakers’ language that they believe the company is getting a raw deal because, unlike its major competitors, it did not receive Air Force funding to modify its commercial rockets so they meet national security mission requirements.

Feinstein and Calvert in the letter ask Wilson to “review how the Air Force intends to maintain assured access to space while preserving maximum competitive opportunities for all certified launch providers.” A copy of the letter was obtained by SpaceNews.

At issue are Launch Service Agreement contracts the Air Force awarded in October to Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems and United Launch Alliance. The three companies collectively received $2.3 billion to support the development of space launch vehicles that meet national security requirements. The Air Force started the LSA program in 2016 to ensure future access to space and to end its reliance on ULA’s Atlas 5 and its Russian main engine.

In October, the U.S. Air Force awarded contracts worth more than $2.2 billion for launch vehicle development to United Launch Alliance (ULA), Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman.

Artist’s conception of Vulcan rocket. (Credit: ULA)


ULA of Centennial, Colo., will receive $967 million
for the development of a launch system prototype of the Vulcan-Centaur booster. 

The agreement includes shared cost investment by ULA. The work is expected to be completed by March 31, 2025. 

OmegA rocket (Credit: Orbital ATK)


Northrop Gumman was awarded a contract worth $791,601,015 for development of the OmegA launch system. The company expects to to complete the work by Dec. 31, 2024. 

New Glenn is a reusable, vertical-landing booster with 3.85 million pounds of thrust, (Credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin has been awarded a $500 million contract for the development of the New Glenn launch system. The booster will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  The work is expected to be completed by July 31, 2024.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Bingo, making the customers you they were targeting believe it better satisfied their needs. Engineers are always seeking perfection whereas customers just want something they are able to afford that does what they need.

    AT&T spent generations designing a super reliable indestructible phone when they had the phone monopoly because it’s what customers told them they “wanted”, a phone that always worked. But when competition was allowed they didn’t buy those expensive indestructible phones. They bought cheap $9.95 phones and just threw they away when they broke. Why? Because they really just needed a “phone” that worked, that enabled you to hear the other person. “Work” didn’t mean waiting two weeks for a repair person to fix it, it meant tossing it in the garbage and just plugging a replacement in.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    And where’s SpaceX’s outreach to the consumer market to drum up business? Again, what’s their solution to the fact that the customers don’t constitute the market as SpaceX want’s it to be? They’re becoming their own customer. I know you’ve been talking this subject with others, I’ll just chime in and say it can go either way and work. Nothing says it has to be one or the other. Sometimes the customer is right, sometimes they need to be led.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    That is a good assumption when their business intersects my business. That is why firms outsource products and services to vendors (they are precisely *not* experts in the thing that is supporting their business)

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Narrator: I am making a generic claim about future events…

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    C-5 and C-141 were evolved from other highly evolved aircraft. This is an H-4 out of nowhere. It’s even worse than the H-4, at least the H-4 had Clipper heritage and Pan Am’s operations experience to draw on. BF(x) comes from a series of design studies done in the 1970’s with no continuity of effort in the intervening 40 years. Worse yet they threw out the 5+ years of engineering they had ready for the initial prototype.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    You’ve fallen into the Isp rat hole and shall never get out. The EELV program has reference orbits and masses to achieve USAF/NRO requirements. This isn’t an open ended proposition. As long as your firecracker can throw 6.6 mT to GSO that’s it. It doesn’t matter how you do it, with a puny 20K pound thrust high Isp Hydrolox engine or a monster 200K pound thrust Kerlox engine. Stop infantilizing the rocket equation for a minute. And to point a finer point on how the rocket equation allows two ways to skin that cat here is the graph:

    https://twitter.com/djsnm/status/1033933900433616896

    Yes, cryo upper stage makes long duration cold soaks easier, no heaters required, but Hydrogen comes with a mess of down sides too. It is a systems engineering trade, not a clear cut winner.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I fully understand that good enough is good enough for now. There are offices of the government that are pursuing what can be had for a future capability. Those future capabilities don’t even necessarily need to be tied to a current program. There was, is, and always will be offices within the government like AFRL who will pursue higher Isp, no matter what the state of the art is. Whether these people have more or less influence over where money goes varies with time. 380 sec of Isp with LOX only levels of propellant handling difficulty is something that is attractive to the folks who’s job it is to develop real world capabilities. Yes they’re Isp chasers, and that’s their job. They’re told to be so.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    And like many corners of the government, it’s a dumb job not well aligned to any bigger strategy.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    We’re not the Chinese, we don’t have cadres of party hacks running through the government and society to make sure we are furthering a grand strategy. Dumb is subjective.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    I must have missed where we were the Chinese in Apollo era. And I am not demanding we go back to the Apollo era, I am demanding the government be efficiently executing on some narrow strategies rather than jobs in certain districts.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Roco was an enforcer within NASA and their contractors. He was not enforcing policy on the USAF, the Navy or the US Army. They had their own policy people. Isp chasing is a policy. An Isp chaser does not step back and say hey Cpt XXX let’s dissolve our office because Falcon 9 is so close to the capabilities that Centaur and RL-10 give us with Delta and Atlas we should just shut down our office and save the taxpayer some money. It does not work that way.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    It doesn’t, but it should. There is NO reason the USAF should be chasing Isp as whatever they want to lift can be lifted with current generation propulsion.

    If the government wants to study high Isp propulsion, it should be nuclear propulsion out of NASA for deep space exploration and probably deeper than even Mars.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Let’s run for office and as members of Congress we could mandate those offices do so by channeling appropriations. Or if we could make it to the White House we could change space policy. Otherwise we’ll be stuck with the US model of government which is low resolution and fractal when it comes to chains of authority. US launch vehicle research is an assault on the rocket equation. Interestingly enough the last time we had a military launch policy predicated on management ideas we held onto it through 3 administrations and just as we got the capability to do it, we dropped it. I speak of Responsive Launch. Notice how we stare down the barrel of responsive launch with the Falcon program as it operates right now, yet the Trump admin has totally dropped it as a concept.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Responsive Launch is a perfect example of the idiocy of the “customer” Robert was referencing earlier. They bid out all these EELV2 contracts to build vehicles, among which are some of the most non-responsive designs ever while channeling money for years into these stupid side projects.

    I did notice the F9 block 5 is the closest anyone has ever gotten to responsive orbital launch and it was a complete accident the government ended up with it. A fully and rapidly reusable Methane vehicle *would be* responsive launch by definition and a hell of a lot more responsive and capable than that Boeing train wreck with SSME strapped to the back (XS-1).

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I’d say kero-lox is the way to go with responsive launch. And Falcon just one contract away from having Space X store a few Falcon’s at Vandenberg AFB and KSC. Heck that buffer could be drawn from for commercial launches and replaced with new/refurb units. It would be a great way for Space X to get paid for quality control. Think of the real world strategic reserve a batch of 12 Falcon 9’s in buffer would constitute.

    Another reason I think a Falcon 9 and not a BF(X) is the best responsive/combat space launcher is it’s sized right. It has great payload capability, can reach GEO and beyond and you could conceivably truck a full vehicle worth of propellant around. Not so with BF(x).

  • redneck

    I would like to see the development be more incremental as well. It makes me a bit nervous that Starship is a major investment and technical risk that depends on a new market. I recognize that Musk and company have more knowledge of the situation than I do. I will admit to annoyance at the bald statements that Starship will certainly fail, and also the statements that Starship will succeed without reservations. It is too early for certainty either way.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    And to be clear, I don’t say BF(x) will certainly fail. I do assert it will certainly have troubles and that they will be compounded by how far out on a limb SpaceX is going with this on multiple fronts. I also expect it take longer to get it working than if SpaceX evolved it from Falcon to something like New Glenn, then do the BF(x). I think we’re looking at 10 to 15 years before BF(x) is taking up commercial (non SpaceX) payloads with an acceptable incidence rate. SpaceX will probably be willing to lose batches of Starlink sats given how high their production rates will be.

  • Aerospike

    You know that, we know that.

    The military treats space too much like other domains.
    Fighter vs. Bomber.
    Tank vs. Apc.
    Cruiser vs. Destroyer.
    etc.
    you get the idea.

    I imagine that something like BFR/Starship is utterly alien to their current strategic thinking, and then add what you said about the design of BFR being in flux and the Air Force’s reaction probably would have been something like “Go home Elon, you’re drunk!”

    That said, I’m still not convinced that SpaceX actually submitted a proposal to the Air Force’s request. Isn’t someone at SpaceX (Mueller?) on record saying that they didn’t want military influence on the design of BFR?

    And the Air Force not wanting to say if SpaceX submitted anything?

    Asked why SpaceX did not make the cut, Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisitions, said the company is an “important member of our launch team” and can choose to bid again in phase 2.

    “Not getting LSA funds does not prevent them from competing,” Roper told reporters at a Pentagon news conference.

    He did not confirm whether SpaceX in fact submitted a bid for this OTA. “We only talk about the awardees,” he said.
    https://spacenews.com/air-force-awards-launch-vehicle-development-contracts-to-blue-origin-northrop-grumman-ula/

  • ThomasLMatula

    The Mosquito came out of nowhere, a bomber as nimble as a fighter made from wood, something the aircraft manufacturers said was nuts. Develop is not always linear. But in terms of the Super Heavy it is linear from the Falcon F9R line of boosters, just bigger with bigger engines. The Starship itself is basically just an Orbiter that lands vertically instead of horizonally.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Anyone wanting to send a payload to orbit without have to wait years for a launch. Anyone wanting to send a payload into deep space cheaply. Anyone wanting to send a payload/crew to the Moon. Space tourists like the one who already bought the first tourist flight to the Moon.

    His goal is 100 tons for less than $10 million a launch. That’s $50/lb to orbit if he hits that mark. Compare that to the Falcon 9 at $1,200/lb. Or the Atlas V at $2,400/lb. Or the SLS at $10,000/lb. Even if he misses that mark and its $100/lb its still a game changer for access to space.

    The Starship has enough volume to carry 400 tourists into LEO. That is $25,000 a ticket at $10 million a launch. That is less than the price of a ticket on the Pan Am China Clipper in current year dollars.

    But best of all, he is not using your tax dollars to do it. Like a true entrepreneur he is using his own money. So really, what are you complaining about?

  • ThomasLMatula

    He said that he would build the Falcon I and he did. He said he would build the Falcon 9 and he did. He said he would recover the Falcon 9 booster to refly and he did. He said he would build a capsule that could be reused and he did. He said he would build a Falcon Heavy that would have boosters that could be reused and he did. That a pretty good track record. But you will know in a year or so if you are wrong again.

  • ThomasLMatula

    I am sure that he would consider a reasonable offer from the USAF to buy Falcon 9 launch systems, especially as he demonstrated how quickly it could launch the X-37B. But the USAF doesn’t seem to be looking to do so.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The Falcon Heavy is in the same payload category as the New Glenn, and its flying… But you seem to think Starships will be falling from the sky like leaves. And its called the Starship, the BFR was the old designed based on composites. He went to stainless steel because its more reliable and a lot cheaper/faster to work with.

  • Vladislaw
  • Vladislaw

    “but what happens when it doesnt? because like all musk things in space it wont”

    MAN you sound like you are just aching for that to happen .. you say it like you TRUELY do not want it to happen .. what is with you? One day you are singing the praises of SpaceX and over night it is anti spacex and name dropping boeing in post after post ..

  • Vladislaw

    Actually the customer is not always right .. heck .. a lot of times the customer is so set in the ways of the past they can not see the an innovation staring them in the face.

    “ya but we always did it this way in the past”
    “we don’t need no new fangled XYZ”

    That is why business have something called a MARKETING dept. where you learn the 1st rule of sales ..

    Sell the Sizzle not the Steak

    “I understand it cost more Mr. Jones and that is why you should buy it today”

  • ThomasLMatula

    Its kinda like Boeing showing up to the competition with the huge four-engine Model 299 while all the other competitors were small twin engine bombers…

    https://www.avgeekery.com/model-299-boeings-big-bomber-design-rose-from-its-own-ashes/

    Faster than the brand new P-26 fighter, able to fly twice the range with twice the bomb load of existing craft. What do you do with such an aircraft?

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    As you know the expectation of payload owners and insurance providers is as near perfect a launch record as you can provide. Also as you know the military demands it because its been demonstrated by ULA. Even if a BF(X) fails every two years that will be considered a problem by a lot of payload owners. If the SX failures of the past decade in any way looked systemic they would have scattered to the old providers except maybe the Russians. Likely the Chinese would have gotten their work. I expect BF(X)’s to crash at a rate like airplanes did in the 1960’s. Maybe the market will accept this and start designing their satellites with the BF(X)’s capabilities in mind after the vehicle has been operating for some time.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    And I can make a list of the things he did not do. Know what the difference between the two lists would be? Public dollars. Space X will be going to public dollars for BF(X), and you know it. In fact you want them to get public dollars for it anyway. Don’t you want government dollars diverted from SLS to BF(x)? It sure seems to from your previous posts.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Forgot to address this …. ”
    The Falcon Heavy is in the same payload category as the New Glenn”……Come on Dr Matula. That’s just pure spin. Pure spin. Look at what happens when you become an advocate. You know you’re misrepresenting the facts don’t you? Do I need to spell it out for you? Maybe I do, so here we go. The Falcon H in full reuse mode has the same payload to LEO and GEO as a Falcon 9 in full throw away mode. 50,000 lbs to LEO. The Falcon H operates in the same payload range as New Glenn is projected to when it’s in throw away mode. A Falcon H in throw away mode is much like a New Glenn in booster reuse mode. If the economics of refurb are what people say they are, you know that means all the difference. Geezh, stop being such an advocate look what it does to you.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Its does not matter whether he wants it to or not. The BF(x) program is going out on a limb in many directions. It would be silly to assume all those development programs will go smoothly and that shortcomings won’t be accepted and worked into the system. If someone emotionally want’s something to happen or not does not matter so long as they come to the discussion with a good idea. You may not want to consider what will happen should BF(x) fall short, however other people do. As a amateur space analyst we should be at least curious as to what it would mean.

  • Vladislaw

    so who needs or wants a Starship?

    The billionaire and wealth creator, Elon Musk, who has created about 75 billion in wealth since selling paypal .. wants it .. That is all you need who wants it. .. END of discussion.

    “because like all musk things in space it wont”

    In the last 3 years SpaceX has launched 48 times or 1.33 times per month. In the last 2 years they have launched 1.67 times per month..

    all musk things in space won’t? Robert do you know how silly you sound spewing such nonsense? That is not even counting how many engines they have recovered saving MILLIONS in production. I remember when you used to call people shills when they spewed the nonsense you just wrote.

  • ThomasLMatula

    What it means is that we get stuck with NASA… Unless Blue Origin starts moving faster.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Falcon won’t stop flying as long as BF(x) is not working and making sales. If SpaceX goes under I fully expect Falcon to land in the hands of ULA. It would be a shame if that happened because if it does history will call them the responsible players, and the BF(x) brigade as a bunch of gambling louts.

  • ThomasLMatula

    If he wanted to go after public dollars he would just do what Old Space does and just give NASA what it wants no matter how outdated it is. At cost plus he could get just as bloated as the Old space firms are.

    But seriously, you are a cheer leader for the SLS? A rocket that launches only a couple dozen tons more than the existing Falcon Heavy at 10 times the cost? That may be able to launch every year or two? That is not even as good as the Saturn V was?

  • ThomasLMatula

    You do know America was built by gamblers like Elon Musk? From the first settlers to today this is a nation built by folks gambling on the future. That is the basic problem with the NASA bureaucracy and Old Space, they are too scared to gamble on the future like they did during Project Apollo.

    No wonder you don’t understand his motives for the Starship. You probably wouldn’t understand Thomas Edison’s pursuit of the electric light, then using the profits to create the record and movie industries after he made money building better telegraphs. Elon Musk is just a modern version of him. But what I see in you is something I see in most of the business students today because schools just don’t teach anymore about the gamblers that made the modern world.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Isn’t that what he did? He knew there was money in EELV’s and he and his company made an most excellent E(E)LV. As for NASA micromanagement, you know every program that’s not micromanaged by them, he loses interest in and drops. Does that say anything to you?

    Cheerlead for SLS? You’re not paying attention. It’s an H-4 too. The problem with SLS is the same problem BF(x) has. No payloads. Like its STS parent SLS eats the budget of its own payloads. At least BF(x) won’t do that. Or at least is not designed to do so from the outset. If BF(x) showed the signs of a well designed and well run program I would want SLS money diverted to it. What would I like to see SLS money diverted to? A lunar lander and a small manned shuttle that can ride on any of the E(E)LV’s on a responsive basis. We can go to the Moon now with Falcon ,and even easier with Falcon and New Glenn, with hardware in hand or almost in hand. All we need is a lander.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    It’s built by gamblers and nobody else? Everyone else is just bunch of hangers on and leaches? Which probably makes us the justifiable rubes to take our tax dollars with and load us down with debit notes to pay for your confidence games. Okay, now I understand better your world view.

    A little dose of reality. It takes all kinds interacting with each other. Look at Andy Beal, quit on space then blew just as much money on poker. Well thought out gambling is fine, reckless gambling is not. Time and time again Musk puts his enterprises on the line in all or nothing efforts. And he does so with public money. A fact you always ignore to mention. One of these times he’s going to fail and take it all down with him. You think he’s a bare chested libertarian, but he’d be peddling apps on an I-phone if it were not for the generosity of the US government.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Listen to yourself …. ”
    Thomas Edison’s pursuit of the electric light, then using the profits to
    create the record and movie industries after he made money building
    better telegraphs”….. Is that what Elon Musk does? NO! He’s using public money to develop high technology launch systems and spacecraft! He’s not using money that Space X made conducting commercial launch activity! And to pay for BF(x) he’s going to banks for loans to make up for the fact that he did not receive government dollars to pay for that program. Elon Musk != Thomas Edison.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    How does a splashdown rule out commercial launch? If passengers are willing to accept the risk of the launch, the orbital portion of the flight, and then re-entry, surely they can accept the chance of having to go swimming at the end of the flight.

  • Robert G. Oler

    sure anything is possible when it is all “aspirational” isnt that the word he uses?

  • Kenneth_Brown

    The Air Force could also be worried about having too many eggs in one basket. SpaceX should be doing ok on it’s own right now and there is only so much money available to put at risk. There is also the point that each company is building and planning vehicles with emphasis on different parameters. Having choices is a good thing and developing and maintaining multiple suppliers is a good buffer against suddenly having none due to a business or hardware explosion.

  • duheagle

    I seem to recall the total amount contributed by USAF as being 1/3 of that $100 million with the rest to be on SpaceX’s dime.

    SpaceX got no LSA money because it didn’t apply for any.

  • duheagle

    Stay tuned Bob.

  • duheagle

    “Aspirational” is a word Musk has used to describe schedules, not the technical and economic feasibility of projects.

  • duheagle

    Excellent riposte. To answer your rhetorical question, when I hire someone to fix something for me, I watch how he does it and what tools he uses and then get the tools so I can do it myself next time. I also ask questions. I’ve saved a bunch on major appliance repair by doing this.

  • duheagle

    USAF didn’t originally want anything to do with GPS. Now it couldn’t operate effectively without it. Sometimes the “customer” is a freakin’ moron.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “That said, I’m still not convinced that SpaceX actually submitted a proposal to the Air Force’s request. Isn’t someone at SpaceX (Mueller?) on record saying that they didn’t want military influence on the design of BFR?”
    Agreed.

    I’m guessing that Elon’s urgent pursuit of Starship/SH signals a calculation that it is the best route to launch Starlink as quickly and cheaply as possible – USAF contracts pale into insignificance compared to the financial potential of Starlink. Obviously he also wants to build an architecture for going beyond Earth orbit, but he’s not financially unaware either. And of course, “build it and they will come” still applies.

  • duheagle

    What happens if a given project fails – or a given company goes out of business – are legitimate topics of conversation/speculation. What seems odd here is the degree of panicky angst you express, and the degree of certitude RGO expresses, anent the particular project SH-Starship-Starlink and the company SpaceX failing. Why no comparable hanky-twisting anent ULA and Vulcan – which strikes me as the highest probability project/company failure risk here? Or NGIS and OmegA – another fairly likely also-ran combo? In your case, at least, I’d like to think it’s because you recognize SpaceX as a unique national asset. That can’t be true of RGO, though, as, according to him, SpaceX has never done anything noteworthy.

    Switch to decaf, Dude, then pull up a chair and watch the show.

  • duheagle

    SpaceX going broke and winding up in the hands of ULA? Pardon me a minute while I slap a Monkey Grip patch on that gut I just busted laughing.

    ULA is far likelier to disappear than SpaceX. It has less and less loot to send back home to Boeing and LockMart. It wouldn’t surprise me if Bezos soon makes an offer to both parents and takes the problem child off their hands.