On May 17, 2019, SpaceX filed a bid protestagainst the U.S. government in the Court of Federal Claims. The suit, which SpaceX requested be sealed (to protect proprietary information the company claims), coincideswith the company’s recent unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Air Force’s Launch Service Agreement (LSA).
Nevertheless, on May 22, the detailsof the lawsuit were made public, despite SpaceX’s protest to the contrary. The purpose of SpaceX’s protest became clear: to undermine the Trump Administration’s selection process for aerospace contracting.
The lawsuit follows another surprising revelation about SpaceX—they botched their own LSA proposal.
Late last year, SpaceX founder Elon Musk admittedthat SpaceX “missed the mark” with its LSA launch bid. For SpaceX, their May 17 bid protest marks the first time the company has confessed to making a mistake in the bidding process.
But in spite of the company’s own contract mismanagement, SpaceX is protesting the government’s LSA decision anyway.
Clearly, the company’s decision to file suit against the government undercuts the administration’s efforts to secure America’s financial and national security interests and should be quickly dismissed.
This follows on the heels of SpaceX’s recent decision to file (and later withdraw) abid protest when it failed to win a NASA contract to launch a science mission to visit several Trojan asteroids in the same orbit around the sun as Jupiter. If anything, it demonstrates the aerospace firm refuses to take responsibility for its failures and always seeks a do-over by interfering with the government’s selection process.
Privately-held SpaceX is free is to pursue its financial interests, but always blaming the other guys is pretty rich coming from a company that has ridden the subsidy train to its current position, and may benefit from a recent $500 million earmark by HASC Chairman Representative Adam Smith (D-WA).
The Bid Protest and the LSA
The Air Force’s LSA is perhaps today’s most important aerospace program, with contracts totaling in the billionsof dollars, so it makes sense that SpaceX wants in. SpaceX has expressed its concernsfor its own financial well-being if it were not selected to participate in particular aerospace contracts.
So, its decision to protest the Air Force decision was clearly made out of corporate self-interest, rather than a genuine concern for America’s national security infrastructure.
This isn’t even the first time Musk’s company has pulled this stunt. Indeed, SpaceX has a track record of interfering with the administration’s agenda and has previously attempted to hobble the Air Force’s selection process when it didn’t get its way.
In February, SpaceX lobbied to slow the Launch Service Agreement when it wasn’t selected to receive Air Force funding to modify its commercial rockets, so they meet national security mission requirements. I
nstead, the Air Force awarded funds to three other aerospace firms as part of a cost-sharing effort with industry—hardly an argument that the government has no viable options and that the taxpayer won’t benefit from competition. SpaceX’s case, advanced by members of the California Hill delegation, was that the program’s timetable put SpaceX at a competitive disadvantage.
In reality, however, competitive circumstances always put someoneat a disadvantage.
Given that SpaceX was left out of that phase of the program, and was unsuccessful at slowing it down, it makes sense that a complaint is SpaceX’s next step toward obstructing the administration’s agenda. This is despite the fact that the United States Air Force has indicated that the program must move forward without further delay.
Obviously, Musk is attempting to deflect blame from his company and toward the Trump Administration.
That is both irresponsible and wasteful.
Other Recent SpaceX Mistakes
SpaceX has a history of costing the taxpayer money when it fails to perform.
On April 20, 2019, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon shuttle suffered a severe malfunction and exploded during testing. Despite leaked footage clearly showing the capsule explode,
SpaceX refused to admit as much and referred to the incident as an anomaly. It wasn’t until over a week later that SpaceX acknowledged the Crew Dragon capsule was destroyed, but it did not take responsibility for the mistake.
This may lead to future launches being delayed as a result.
In early May, it was revealed that SpaceX is also having difficulty with the Crew Dragon’s parachute system. In April, a test of the shuttle’s parachutes found that they “did not operate properly,” and that NASA “did not get the results” it wanted.
This has been an ongoing problem for SpaceX, which, despite apparent efforts, has yet to be resolved by the company.
SpaceX is a young company with real successes to its credit, but it doesn’t understand the rules of the road for high-dollar aerospace contracting: use your losses to sharpen your subsequent attempts, and keep the taxpayer uppermost in your mind.
Time will tell if SpaceX can take the lessons of its adolescence into a productive adulthood.
James Durso (@James_Durso) served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years specializing in logistics and security assistance.
His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.
He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He is presently managing director of Corsair LLC, a consulting firm specializing in project management and marketing support in the Middle East and Central Asia.