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ULA rocket launch. Photo via Nasa.
Mar. 2015 ULA rocket launch for NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale spacecraft.  Photo via Nasa.

The VP of Engineering at United Launch Alliance (ULA), Brett Tobey, has resigned after comments he made in a Tuesday talk at the University of Colorado-Boulder were made public.

Brett Tobey. Image via ULA.
Brett Tobey. Image via ULA.

In his talk, Tobey referenced other space companies including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, as well as the U.S. government — ULA’s biggest client. ULA is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing. Prior to joining ULA last September, Tobey was with Lockheed Martin for 32 years.

First, Tobey said that the reason ULA did not bid on a launch service contract for the U.S. military’s GPS satellite was because it was hoping to avoid a “cost shootout” with SpaceX, contradicting the reason ULA gave last year for skipping the bid.

Then, Tobey accused Sen. John McCain of working with Elon Musk of SpaceX to ban the use of a Russian rocket engine for military space launches to purposefully hobble ULA.

Finally, he compared two of ULA’s business partners, Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne, to “a super-rich girl” and “a poor girl” that ULA was going to have to woo until it found out which would offer a better deal for its new rocket engines — a comparison many found sexist. Tobey also said ULA was more likely to pick Blue Origin, despite the company having made no public announcement about who it will award the engine contract.

The CEO of ULA, Tory Bruno, yesterday distanced himself from Tobey over Twitter, saying that ULA values competition and describing Tobey’s comments as “ill-advised.”

Shortly after, Bruno announced in a statement that Tobey was resigning his position, effective immediately.

“The views, positions and inaccurate statements Mr. Tobey presented at his recent speaking engagement were not aligned with the direction of the company, my views, nor the views I expect from ULA leaders,” Bruno said in the statement.

You can hear Tobey’s talk on a recording uploaded by industry publication SpaceNews. Tobey did not seem to be aware that his comments were being recorded.

Elon Musk in Seattle in 2015. (GeekWire File Photo)
Elon Musk in Seattle in 2015. (GeekWire File Photo)

After SpaceX sued the U.S. Air Force last year, protesting what it saw as an exclusive relationship with ULA for U.S. satellite launches, the government agreed to allow bidding over launches.

One of those bids was for a next-generation GPS-3 satellite launch. ULA did not participate in the bid, saying at the time that it did not have the proper accounting procedures in place to do the work and that it lacked the Russian-made RD-180 engines that it uses in its Atlas V to launch the satellite, according to Reuters.

The company pointed towards a temporary Congressional ban making it difficult to purchase the engines. The ban was passed in 2014 after U.S. and Russian relations soured over Russian aggression in Crimea.

In his talk, however, Tobey claimed that ULA did not participate in the bid to avoid competition, trying to stop a “cost shootout.” He also implied that company had gotten help from the U.S. government to make the bid go ULA’s favor, but had bowed out anyway.

“The government was not happy with us not bidding that contract because they had felt that…they had bent over backwards to lean the fill to our advantage,” Tobey said. “We saw it as a cost shootout between us and SpaceX.”

Tobey then went on to accuse SpaceX CEO Elon Musk of engineering the ban on Russian-made RD-180 engines with the help of politicians, specifically Sen. John McCain, to damage ULA. McCain has been public about seeking a renewal of the ban on Russian engines after 2019 as a continued sanction against Russian aggression.

“This guy right here, John McCain, who basically doesn’t like us; he’s like this with Elon Musk,” Tobey continued. “So Elon Musk says, ‘Why don’t you guys go, why don’t you go after United Launch Alliance and see if you can get that engine to be outlawed?’…He starts attacking us in Washington.”

Now, ULA and the Pentagon are working together to figure out a way to “silence McCain,” Tobey said.

Jeff Bezos
Amazon’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, inspects Blue Origin’s launch facility in West Texas before a test flight in April. (Credit: Blue Origin)

McCain brought up Tobey’s comments at a Senate committee meeting this week, recommending a Congressional investigation, since “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.”

Because of the insecure status of Russian-made engines for its Atlas V rocket, ULA is seeking U.S. companies to manufacture its engines. Right now, it is considering two competitors: Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne. ULA has not yet announced anything about who it will award with the contract.

In his Tuesday talk, Tobey claimed that ULA is stringing along both competitors, but that Blue Origin is more likely to get the contract.

He compared the two companies to women — two competing brides that ULA would have to keep wooing with presents until it decided whom to keep. Many were angered by the sexist overtone of the comments.

“Compare it to having two fiancées, two possible brides,” Tobey said. “Blue Origin is a super-rich girl, and then there is this poor girl over here, Aerojet Rocketdyne. But we have to continue to go to planned rehearsal dinners, buy cakes, and all the rest with both. [We’re] doing all this work for both of them, and the chances of Aerojet Rocketdyne coming in and beating the billionaire is pretty low. We’re putting a whole lot more energy into BE-4, Blue Origin.”

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