SpaceX today filed a lawsuit against the federal government, apparently protesting a contract bidding process — but asked the court to keep the proceedings under seal and covered by a protective order.
The California-based company said the details had to be kept out of the public eye because they include “confidential and proprietary information and source selection information not appropriate for release to the public.”
SpaceX’s lawyers told the U.S. Court of Federal Claims that the proceedings surrounding the company’s bid protest should be conducted confidentially, under the terms of a protective order, in order to safeguard the competitive process.
In accordance with court procedures, the specifics of today’s complaint were held back from public access, but SpaceX’s motion to keep those specifics under seal is accessible via the court docket. The case was assigned to Judge Lydia Kay Griggsby; no further action on the motion was noted in court documents filed today. We’ve asked SpaceX about the filings, and will update this item with anything we hear.
This isn’t the first time SpaceX has filed a bid protest against the federal government: The best-known case came in 2014 when SpaceX sued the government over the Air Force’s decision to order 36 rocket cores from United Launch Alliance.
At the time, United Launch Alliance — a joint venture involving Lockheed Martin and Boeing — was the only company certified to launch national security payloads for the federal government. After the protest was filed, the Air Force worked out a deal to certify SpaceX for national security launches as well, and SpaceX dropped the suit.
More recently, SpaceX filed a bid protest in February with the Government Accountability Office, focusing on NASA’s award of the 2021 launch of its Lucy asteroid mission to United Launch Alliance. That protest was withdrawn last month.
In both cases, SpaceX argued that it could have provided the contracted goods and services at a dramatically lower price.
Contracts for space services can amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, or billions of dollars, so there’s plenty of incentive for challenging a bidding process that doesn’t turn out the way a bidder expected. Last October, SpaceX missed out on a rocket development contract from the Air Force. Instead, $2.3 billion went to Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance and Northrop Grumman.
There’s an even bigger Air Force launch service procurement competition in the works, and the procedure for the selection process has already generated controversy. But unless more details come to light, it’ll be hard for folks outside the courtroom to know exactly what SpaceX is upset about.
Update for 2:40 p.m. PT May 20: There’s still no word about the subject of SpaceX’s bid protest, but according to an order issued today, the case will be the subject of a teleconference set for Wednesday, involving court officials as well as attorneys for SpaceX and the Justice Department. Judge Griggsby’s order makes clear that SpaceX is filing a post-award bid protest.
Space News’ Jeff Foust noted that earlier this month, the Air Force announced that it has awarded United Launch Alliance a $149 million contract modification for the launch of the NROL-68 spy satellite on a Delta 4 Heavy rocket, which is part of a three-launch contract. But there’s still not enough information to determine whether that contract or a different one is the subject of SpaceX’s protest. Today the Justice Department declined to comment on the case.