SpaceX gets closer to making a reusable rocket, sues Air Force

Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of Hawthorne rocket maker SpaceX, hastily called a news conference Friday in Washington, D.C., where he outlined an array of matters confronting his upstart company.

A cryptic email was sent to media around 9 p.m. Pacific time Thursday that said he would "make an important SpaceX announcement" the next day at the National Press Club. The big announcement, however, wasn't quite clear. Musk made several revelations during the half-hour event.

First, he provided an update on SpaceX's goal of creating the world's first fully reusable rocket — the holy grail in rocketry. Then, he said the company was filing suit against the U.S. Air Force to open up competition in rocket launches. Finally, he mentioned that SpaceX was building a launch facility in southern Texas.

Musk opened the event by talking about a reusable rocket because last week SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida to deliver supplies to the International Space Station for NASA.

After the Falcon 9 blasted off and the second stage was jettisoned, the first stage fell back to Earth before reigniting its rocket engines to cushion its attempted landing in the Atlantic Ocean.

Although SpaceX was unable to recover the first stage because of a storm and unsafe sea conditions, the company received data that said the rocket carried out a soft landing. The data was so promising that engineers believe SpaceX will be able to launch and return a booster by the end of the year.

The stage would then be refurbished and reused early next year.

"The data is very clear that it shows a soft landing," Musk said. "I think this bodes very well for achieving reusability."

For SpaceX, a reusable system could mean big savings in developing and operating rockets. The closest example of a reusable launch system is the retired space shuttle fleet, spacecraft that were only partially reused after a tedious months-long overhaul.

These savings would help further bring down costs. SpaceX already keeps costs low — rockets start at $56 million — because it manufactures nearly all of its own parts. Founded in 2002, SpaceX makes rockets at a sprawling facility in Hawthorne that was once used to assemble fuselage sections for Boeing 747s.

SpaceX's sales pitch has worked on NASA. The company's launch last week marked the third flight in its $1.6-billion, 12-mission contract with the space agency to transport cargo to the space station.

But the company hasn't been able to break into the lucrative business of launching the U.S. government's most sophisticated national security satellites.

For eight years, the Pentagon has paid Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. — operating jointly as United Launch Alliance — to launch the government's pricey spy satellites without seeking competitive bids.

The Air Force buys United Launch Alliance rockets to launch school-bus-size satellites for spying, weather forecasting, communications, GPS and other experimental purposes. The government pays the company nearly $1 billion each year whether it launches six times or none.

Musk has taken issue with the cozy partnership and wants a piece of the military's contracts, which could be worth as much as $70 billion through 2030.

"These launches should be competed," he said. "If we compete and lose, that is fine. But why would they not even compete it?"

The company plans on filing the lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims next week.

In recent months, United Launch Alliance has been criticized for the way it builds its rockets. It uses a Russian-built RD-180 rocket engine on its Atlas V.

In the wake of Russia's seizure of Crimea, SpaceX has hammered United Launch Alliance over use of the engine. The Pentagon has directed the Air Force to perform a review to understand the implications of using the engine.

"This seems like the wrong time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kremlin," Musk said.

In a question-and-answer part of the briefing, Musk revealed more details of his previously announced plans to add a small Texas town on the Gulf of Mexico to its list of rocket launch sites.

He said a launch pad in Brownsville, Texas, would be "active in a couple of years."

SpaceX already has two launch pads in Cape Canaveral and another launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base, northwest of Santa Barbara.

Twitter: @wjhenn

Copyright © 2018, CT Now