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Top rocket exec quits after telling the truth about SpaceX price war

Plus: Senator McCain calls for investigation into military sat launch cash splurge

ULA Atlas launch

Brett Tobey, vice president of engineering at the United Launch Alliance, has resigned after he spilled the beans on ULA's feud with SpaceX.

He made the remarks to students at his alma mater in a speech that was recorded and then put online.

ULA is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin that lofts US military satellites into orbit. The biz has been at loggerheads with SpaceX after the Elon Musk-led upstart was locked out of the bidding for government contracts.

SpaceX sued Uncle Sam, and was eventually allowed to bid on a launch. ULA didn't put in a counter-bid because it said it couldn't meet the requirements of the contract.

However, Tobey told students at University of Colorado-Boulder this week that other factors were involved – chiefly that ULA couldn't match SpaceX on price.

He explained that SpaceX was offering to do the entire launch for $60m, and ULA would have charged $125m. That figure rises to $200m when you factor in the $800m a year the US military pays ULA for a "capability contract" to provide short-notice launches in an emergency.

"ULA opted to not bid that," Tobey said. "The government was not happy with us not bidding that contract because they felt that they had bent over backwards to lean the fill to our advantage. But we saw it as a cost shootout between us and SpaceX."

Tobey also ranted about SpaceX using Senator John McCain to block access to key technology for ULA. The consortium uses RD-180 rocket engines that are made in Russia, but after Putin started acting up, the ULA was barred from buying the rockets under conditions of embargo – at SpaceX's bidding, Tobey suggested.

Luckily for ULA, the ban on Russian rockets was overturned by Senator Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican who represents a district where ULA has a major manufacturing plant. Nevertheless, ULA has now hired two firms to develop a new rocket for its launches.

Tobey said that Jeff Bezos' rocketeers at Blue Origin and California firm Aerojet Rocketdyne are currently bidding for the new rocket contract. The two firms have very different approaches, but ULA wants to hedge its bets.

"Compare it to having two fiancées, two possible brides. Blue Origin is a super-rich girl, and then there is this poor girl over here, Aerojet Rocketdyne," he said.

"But we have to continue to go to planned rehearsal dinners, buy cakes and all the rest with both. We're doing all the work on both, and the chance of Aerojet Rocketdyne beating the billionaire is pretty low. Basically we're putting a whole lot more energy into BE-4 for Blue Origin."

Tobey also took time to alternately praise and trash SpaceX. He said that Musk had "changed the game completely" in the orbital launch market and that landing a rocket for reuse had been a hugely exciting development, but that the concept itself was "dumb."

He said it didn't make sense to land rocs, since the amount of fuel needed to do so limited orbital delivery options. He said ULA's forthcoming Vulcan rocket will be much more practical, since the first stage of the rocket will parachute down to earth and be caught mid-air by a helicopter.

It's highly likely that Tobey thought this was a private gathering and his comments weren't for distribution, but someone in the auditorium was recording. After Tobey's candid remarks were made public by Space News, ULA's CEO went on Twitter to repudiate them.

Tobey has now resigned from the ULA – one suspects before he was fired – but the repercussions from his talk are likely to cause serious problems for the company nevertheless. On Thursday morning, Senator John McCain told a committee meeting to discuss the military's budget that Tobey's comments were "disturbing," and called for an investigation.

"These statements raise troubling questions about the nature of the relationship between the Department of Defense and ULA," he said.

"This committee treats with the utmost seriousness any implication that the department showed favoritism to a major defense contractor or that efforts have been made to silence members of congress. Mr. Secretary, I expect that you will make a full investigation into these statements and take action wherever appropriate." ®

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