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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

SpaceX: Test Flight and a Lawsuit

By Phil Plait

SpaceX, the private spaceflight company, has been testing a series of vertical takeoff and landing rockets for a while now. The first was Grasshopper, which was cool. They’ve now moved up to the F9R Dev, the Falcon 9 Reusable Development Vehicle, which is a Falcon 9 first stage booster with deployable landing legs attached. They just ran a test of the F9R where it lifted to a height of 1,000 meters—one kilometer, or 0.6 miles. The video of this is pretty amazing.

I love the cows. This flight quadruples the height of the previous test two weeks ago. At a recent press conference, SpaceX chief Elon Musk said that fuel is relatively cheap compared with hardware, so being able to reuse the first stage of the F9 rocket could generate a big cost savings.

I’ll note they did a test of this system during the launch to the International Space Station on April 18; after the first stage booster separated, the landing legs deployed and it did a “soft” landing in the Atlantic. Unfortunately, the seas were too rough for recovery, and the booster sank. They did get some rocketcam footage from the landing, but it’s disappointing; there’s a fraction of a second where you can see down the length of the booster when the engines were firing, but the rest was pretty garbled. They’re hoping to crowdsource a way to improve the footage, though.

At the press conference I mentioned, Musk also discussed some big news: SpaceX is suing the Air Force. The short version is that the government gave a “sole source” (uncompeted) contract to United Launch Alliance for a series of national security–related rocket launches. SpaceX feels they should have had a shot at the contract, and it was improper of the government not to give them that chance.

This gets more interesting: SpaceX also complained that many of the ULA rockets use the RD-180 rocket engine, which is manufactured in Russia. Now follow this: Dmitry Rogozin is the deputy prime minister of Russia and head of the space and defense industry. Because of what Russia is doing to Ukraine, Rogozin is on a “Blocked Persons” list (signed by a presidential executive order), which effectively means the U.S. cannot purchase materials from any interest Rogozin might hold. A federal court granted the request for an injunction, so ULA cannot get their engines unless and until they can show it doesn’t violate the executive order.

I have to say, I’m not generally a fan of sole-source contracts, and I think SpaceX has a case here. I’ll note that SpaceX is not yet rated for national security missions, but the company claims that’s just a matter of paperwork … and its claim that they can save the government money on the launches strikes me as pretty solid.

However, I’m also more than a bit concerned that this injunction has further antagonized the Russians … and mind you, right now Russian rockets are the only way to get US astronauts to and from the space station. The ULA launches don’t directly affect that (the national security contract was for uncrewed flights), but indirectly this can have an impact on our relations with the Russian space agency. Rogozin already responded to the executive order with a sarcastic comment saying that if the U.S. wants to get astronauts to orbit, he suggests using a trampoline.

A lot of people are laughing at that, but it’s important to remember that at the moment, when it comes to the space station, Russia holds the cards. At least, for a time; SpaceX is gearing up to get its Dragon capsule rated for crewed flight, and expects to have its first crewed test flight as early as next year. Of course SpaceX must be taking that into account during all this. In response to Rogozin’s comment, Musk responded that “… this might be a good time to unveil the new Dragon Mk 2 spaceship. … No trampoline needed.”

Rogozin must know this as well, so it's not in his (or his country's) best interest to tick us off either—we spend a lot of money on those rides to space.

So this is quite the situation. I have no clue how this is going to work out, and despite the rumors and opinions flying around, I don’t think anyone else does, either. But for updates I suggest, Universe Today, and Ars Technica.

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