SpaceX Is Eating Up United Launch Alliance's NASA Missions

Winning a $153-million contract for a next-gen weather satellite.
Brad Bergan
A satellite overlooking Greenland.Thibalt Renauld / iStock

Sometimes, it feels like space travel is changing hands.

NASA has awarded a $152.5-million federal contract to SpaceX, selecting Elon Musk's private aerospace company for a critical mission to launch a next-generation weather satellite, according to a recent blog post from NASA's official website.

However, SpaceX only received the contract after United Launch Alliance stepped down from candidacy for the mission, and this isn't the first time SpaceX has assumed the responsibility of go-to NASA workhorse aerospace companies, like ULA, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin. And, it increasingly seems that SpaceX is beginning to eat up more and more of other companies' space contracts, in a trend we can expect to continue as Musk's company inches closer to developing a viable lunar lander via the Starship, which could take humans into deep space in the next decade.

United Launch Alliance's SLS rocket will share humanity's return to the moon with SpaceX's Starship

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launch rocket system will loft NASA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-U (GOES-U) into geostationary orbit, where it will orbit the planet in sync with the region of Earth below. Once positioned, the satellite will snap images and take atmospheric measurements of the oceans, weather, and environmental systems, in addition to mapping lightning in real-time and mapping space weather and solar activity. The launch of GOES-U will serve as the fourth and final satellite of a broader GOES-R series, the initial satellite of which was placed into orbit in 2016. As a collaboration between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this fleet of satellites is second to none in the U.S. on a technological register.

SpaceX will launch GOES-U in April from Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, and it represents a major victory for the company as it shoulders an increasing portion of all U.S. space missions. Elon Musk's firm was initially in contest with ULA for the launch, a legacy aerospace firm currently developing the super-heavy-lift (SLS) launch vehicle. Until ULA dropped out of the bidding. NASA has said the SLS is slated to become the foundation for crewed missions beyond Earth's orbit, its first major journey will be to the moon, in a world-historical space project called Artemis. It will go like this: the SLS will lift astronauts aboard NASA's Orion space capsule into lunar orbit, and, upon arriving, the astronauts will then transfer to SpaceX's Starship rocket, to engage a final descent sequence for a touchdown on the moon.

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SpaceX could become an even more dominant rocket launch provider for NASA

However, this wasn't always the plan for a mission to the moon. While Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin was also bidding for NASA's contract (worth $2.9 billion, for SpaceX), it was Elon Musk's company that started the trend of novel companies building new launch systems independent of NASA, ULA, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing, to open up space travel to even broader commercial interests. But it didn't happen without speedbumps. Back in 2014, SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the federal government over an $11-billion contract with the U.S. Air Force that had been granted to ULA, arguing that the government favored ULA for big contract missions. After the case was settled out of court in early 2015, SpaceX enjoyed more frequent contracts, including its first military contract with the Air Force to lift a satellite into space for $82.7 million in 2016.

This launch marked the end of a monopoly over military launches long-held by Boeing and Lockheed. Since then, we've seen countless military launches lifted atop SpaceX rockets, in addition to two crewed NASA missions, with Crew-3 slated for Oct. 31, 2021. For better or worse, SpaceX will continue to play an increasingly equal role in NASA launches compared to ULA, Boeing, and Lockheed. And, unless Blue Origin kicks things into overdrive, SpaceX could become an incredibly dominant provider for government contracts.

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