Tuesday, 6 May 2014

SpaceX's lawsuit against US Air Force sparks developments

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) has filed a lawsuit against the US Air Force for awarding a series of launch contracts to the United Launch Alliance (ULA) without a competition. At the same time, SpaceX had requested a preliminary injunction to block any commercial or financial transactions with NPO Energomash, a Russian company that manufactures the RD-180 engines of the vehicles used by the ULA, which was granted by the Court. This move has caused a series of reactions in the US and the Russian Federation. However, at present things may not be as tense as they seem.

The court's granting of the preliminary injunction came as a result of the US economic sanctions against Russian officials due to the situation in Ukraine. Among those officials was Dmitry Rogozin, the Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation and head of the space and defense industry. Rogozin is deemed to have considerable financial interests in NPO Energomash, the manufacturer of the RD-180 engines. SpaceX's request for a preliminary injunction was based on this fact.

The court's order caused acute criticism from ULA against SpaceX, which doubted the latter’s ability to deliver national security payloads in orbit, accused SpaceX of “opportunistic action”, while indicating that it will work with the Department of Justice to “resolve the issue expeditiously”. These developments followed an earlier NASA’s announcement on suspension of US-Russian cooperation in space, with the exception of ISS.

Rogozin himself warned of possible repercussions on US astronauts' transportation to the ISS, because at present only Russian made launch vehicles can execute manned missions to the ISS, while twitting with irony that US astronauts could now use a trampoline to get into orbit.

Thus, there have been worries in the US that the current situation may affect adversely both manned flights to the ISS and delivery of US payloads in orbit.

However, so far, Russia has reacted only verbally to the US sanctions, and in a quite mild tone. These reactions are accompanied by posts on the site of Voice of Russia, which call for reconsideration of the US sanctions to the mutual interest, rather than threatening with retaliation.

As to the ISS, despite Rogozin’s comments on Tweeter, ISS operations have not been affected so far. This could confirm earlier comments of NASA's administrator, Charles Bolden, that there is interdependence between all Partner States of the ISS, implying that such interdependence is so strong, that ISS operations will remain unaffected from political tensions, as has happened until now.

Concerning US payloads, at present there is no cancellation of orders or otherwise disruption to the supply of Russian engines to the US. The only problem is the injunction issued by the US court, which does not affect retroactive effect and can be overcome under US federal law, if the Departments of State, Treasury and of Commerce and decide so. In any case, contingency plans could be activated in the US, i.e. using the two-year stockpile of engines built by the ULA as part of its contractual obligations.

Nevertheless, the US clearly feels uncomfortable with all these and is seeking to regain its autonomy concerning space transportation. It has been reported that the US Congress’s House Armed Services subcommittee has proposed spending $ 220 million next year to start a full scale development to the RD-180 engine.

At the same time, SpaceX’s owner and CEO Elon Musk, expressed his willingness to reach an out-of-court settlement with the US Air Force, which may indicate that the current situation in the US space sector reflects more domestic industry rivalries and less political confrontation with Russia.

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