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SpaceX wins court injunction to block US Air Force buying Russian rockets

Why buy from the Russians when the US has its own rocketeers argues Musk

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SpaceX has won an injunction blocking the United Launch Alliance (ULA) from buying rocket equipment from Russia to service its contract with the US Air Force for orbital launches.

Judge Susan Braden ruled on Wednesday that the ULA - a 50/50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that has an exclusive, non-compete contract with the US Air Force to loft its satellites (and the super-secret X-37B spaceplane) into space – would be violating sanctions law if it carried on sourcing RD-180 rocket engines from Russian firm NPO Energomash.

"The US Court of Federal Claims took a prudent step toward understanding whether United Launch Alliance's current sole-source contract violates US sanctions by sending taxpayer money to Russia for the RD-180 engine," a SpaceX spokeswomen told The Reg.

"That question – as well as others relating to the risks posed by dependence on Russian-made engines and the need to open competition for the Air Force space launch program – are timely and appropriate."

SpaceX didn't request its injunction because it's particularly concerned about sanction-busting by American companies. What it does want is the right to compete with the ULA for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) contract that the military signed off on with the American aerospace companies, worth an estimated $70bn over the next 15 years.

SpaceX claims it was in the running to compete for the EELV contract but had to complete three successful test flights first. It completed two, but days before the third flight the contract for 36 rockets was awarded to the ULA.

Elon Musk didn't get where he is today by being the shy and retiring type, so now he's going to take on the military industrial complex in the courts. Musk claims that the ULA is charging $400m per launch on its Atlas rocket, and says he can do it for a quarter of the price.

The first stage of the Atlas rocket uses motors supplied by NPO Energomash, which is controlled by the Russian government. After Vladimir Putin's Ukrainian land grab, US sanctions against the country – and Wednesday's court ruling – mean that option is no longer on the table.

Judge Braden's ruling doesn't leave the US Air Force unable to function, however. It doesn't apply retroactively, so all existing purchase orders between the Russians and the ULA are still valid.

"ULA is deeply concerned with this ruling and we will work closely with the Department of Justice to resolve the injunction expeditiously. In the meantime, ULA will continue to demonstrate our commitment to our National Security on the launch pad by assuring the safe delivery of the missions we are honored to support," the group said in a statement.

"SpaceX's attempt to disrupt a national security launch contract so long after the award ignores the potential implications to our National Security and our nation's ability to put Americans on board the International Space Station ... This opportunistic action by SpaceX appears to be an attempt to circumvent the requirements imposed on those who seek to meet the challenging launch needs of the nation and to avoid having to follow the rules, regulations and standards expected of a company entrusted to support our nation's most sensitive missions." ®

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