Space News reports that a senior United Launch Alliance (ULA) executive, Brett Tobey, has lost his job (by resignation) after revealing a little too much about the past and present decisions of the firm during a public lecture at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. In his lecture Brett Tovey, the Vice President of Engineering at the firm, had confirmed that the decision by ULA not to bid for a recent US Air Force GPS launch contract was due to the fact the expensive Atlas V rocket could not compete with the low Falcon 9 launch prices of SpaceX which are about half the cost. The official line of the firm was previously, and less credibly, that it withdrew from the bid due to an accounting compliance issue.

Tobey went onto assert that the US Air Force had been disappointed that ULA withdrew after it had “bent over backwards” to favour ULA in the contract award process.

The raw power of the RD-180 engine lifts the Atlas V 401 carrying GPS IIF-8 off the pad. Courtesy: ULA

The raw power of the RD-180 engine lifts the Atlas V 401 carrying GPS IIF-8 off the pad. Courtesy: ULA

During his lecture, Brett Tobey also noted the national and political concerns about the Russian supply of high performance LOx/kerosene RD-180 engines and the effort to replace the engine on future ULA launch vehicles such as the proposed Vulcan. Tobey indicated that Blue Origin’s lead in the development in its LOx/methane-powered BE-4 engine made it favourite in any competition over the belatedly begun LOx/kerosene-powered Aerojet-Rocketdyne AR-1 engine, whose development would need government financial support given its relative lack of financial resources. Tovey also admitted that ULA itself would find things much tougher once it lost the US$800 million stipend it receives from the US Air Force per year under the current EELV Launch Capability contract which ends in 2019.

While the prospect for ULA remain week, it was Aerojet Rocketdyne’s perceived market weakness in supplying up-to-date and cost/effective rocket engine technology, that was one of the reasons cited by industry observers for its recent bid to buy ULA. Tovey revealed that its US$2 billion bid was however rejected as being too low by the board for the ULA firm which is jointly owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The leadership of the ULA firm which is lead by ULA CEO Tony immediately distanced themselves from the comments before later announcing Tobey’s resignation from the firm.

A full description of events is on the Space News website here:

Update on 31 March:  As a result of some of Tobey’s remarks, the US Secretary of State for Defense has ordered an inquiry into the allegations that ULA had been favoured in US Air Force contract awards.