SpaceX is playing with the big boys of the aerospace industry these days and some of them apparently don’t have a ton of respect for the plucky interloper.
Lockheed Martin, a partner with Boeing in the United Launch Alliance (ULA) venture that has supplied boosters to the Pentagon and NASA for military satellite launches over the last several years, appears to be particularly miffed that Elon Musk‘s company recently won a contract to conduct trial missions for inserting Air Force spacecraft in low-Earth orbit.
A few weeks ago, Lockheed Martin chairman and CEO Robert Stevens called out SpaceX’s relative inexperience at a Bloomberg-hosted gathering of government contractors in Washington, according to the Washington Post.
“I’m hugely pleased with 66 in a row from ULA, and I don’t know the record of SpaceX yet. Two in a row?” Stevens reportedly quipped, referring to a string of successful launches overseen by his company and Boeing.
Musk reportedly responded to Stevens in an email sent to thePost, saying, “All of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 missions have reached orbit and completed all primary mission objectives.”
SpaceX conducted its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station in October after a successful demonstration run by its Dragon capsule to the ISS earlier in the year. The company co-founded and led by Musk, also CEO of Tesla Motors, has been awarded a NASA contract to conduct a dozen more such missions in an official capacity.
In July, the Hawthorne, Calif.-based private spaceflight company also won an $82 million contract from NASA to launch the space agency’s unmanned Jason-3 research satellite aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in December 2014. The following month, SpaceX joined Boeing and Sierra Nevada as recipients of a $1.1 billion fund from NASA for the design and development of future-generation manned spacecraft.
However, even as SpaceX’s fortunes have been on the rise, the ULA has remained the go-to provider of launch vehicles for NASA and the U.S. military until recently. The July contract awarded to SpaceX for a single mission was more than matched by NASA’s $412 million deal with the ULA to launch three Delta 2 missions for the space agency beginning in 2012.
And the ULA has had “a lock” on military launches for the past six years, the Washington Post noted. But as the paper also reported, the Lockheed-Boeing venture has also “struggled to control costs” on those missions.
The pursuit of a cheaper alternative to the ULA was reportedly a factor in the Air Force’s selection of SpaceX to conduct two trial launches in 2014 and 2015 under a contract “valued at as much $900 million,” according to the newspaper.
“The missions … are designed to help the company become certified to carry military and spy satellites,” the Post reported.
But Lockheed’s Stevens, who is retiring on Jan. 1 and will be succeeded as CEO by chief operating officer Marillyn Hewson, had this to say about penny-pinching on launch missions:
“Cost doesn’t matter at all if you don’t put the ball into orbit. You can thrift on cost. You can take cost out of a rocket. But I will guarantee you, in my experience, when you start pulling a lot of costs out of a rocket, your quality and your probability of success in delivering a payload to orbit diminishes.”
Musk reportedly responded by saying that SpaceX’s Falcon rockets were cheaper than the ULA’s Deltas because his company’s “technology is significantly more advanced than that of the Lockheed-Boeing rockets, which were designed last century.”