December 4, 2022

In leaked email, ULA official calls NASA leadership “incompetent”

In leaked email, ULA official calls NASA leadership “incompetent”
In leaked email, ULA official calls NASA leadership “incompetent”In leaked email, ULA official calls NASA leadership “incompetent”
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, left, and Tory Bruno, president and chief executive officer of United Launch Alliance, wait at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to see the liftoff of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on Dec. 20, 2019.
Enlarge / NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, left, and Tory Bruno, president and chief executive officer of United Launch Alliance, wait at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to see the liftoff of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on Dec. 20, 2019.

In what appear to be legitimate emails from April and May, a senior official of the US rocket company United Launch Alliance (ULA) characterizes the leadership of NASA as “incompetent and unpredictable.”

The statement was made in one of six emails leaked on a hacking forum on Tuesday evening. The leaked emails all involve correspondence between Robbie Sabathier, the vice president of government operations and strategic communications at ULA, and Hasan Solomon, a lobbyist at the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, a large aerospace union.

The emails make claims, some verifiable and some that seem to be wildly erroneous, about the relationship between NASA, the Trump administration, SpaceX founder Elon Musk, and China. The central argument put forth by ULA—a company whose launch business has been damaged by the rise of SpaceX—is that NASA, as led by Trump officials, favored SpaceX for political reasons.

“Large NASA taxpayer investments are being thrown away due to the cozy relationship established by Trump political hacks throughout NASA,” Sabathier wrote on April 23. “The US Government’s deep space exploration program is at risk: This large program which is the baseline for deep space exploration is being threatened due to political favors being offered to Elon Musk.”

In response to a question about the emails from Ars, a ULA spokeswoman, Jessica Rye, declined to comment about their content. “We will not comment at this time but are taking this alleged cyber crime seriously,” Rye said. “While we are continuing to thoroughly investigate, we have no evidence to suggest any ULA accounts or systems have been breached.”

Email timing

The emails were exchanged shortly after NASA announced its selection of SpaceX to build a Human Landing System for the space agency’s Artemis program in mid-April. SpaceX beat out a team led by Blue Origin, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, and a team led by Dynetics. ULA was part of the Dynetics team, providing launch services with its new Vulcan rocket.

NASA’s decision—which the agency said was based on SpaceX having the most technically competent bid and lowest price—set off a firestorm of criticism from Blue Origin. The company protested to the US Government Accountability Office and, after losing this objection, sued NASA in the US Court of Federal Claims. Dynetics had a more muted response, although these leaked emails suggest there was considerable lobbying happening behind the scenes.

Sabathier asserted that Musk had a cozy relationship with the Trump administration, which had populated NASA with a bunch of “hacks,” including the Trump-appointed administrator Jim Bridenstine. As a result, Sabathier wrote, “NASA’s reputation with industry has been eroded due to Trump politicizing of the Agency for his own gain. NASA HQ’s A-Suite leadership is currently incompetent and unpredictable.”

At the time she wrote this email, however, Trump-era officials had been gone from NASA for three months. The decision to select the Human Landing System was instead spearheaded by two civil servants: NASA’s acting administrator, Steve Jurczyk, and the leader of NASA’s Human Spaceflight program, Kathy Lueders.

In criticizing the “administrator-suite” leadership of NASA, Sabathier also took aim at Thomas Zurbuchen, the chief of science missions at NASA. This may make the October launch of NASA’s asteroid mission, Lucy, a bit uncomfortable. Lucy will launch on a ULA-built Atlas V rocket, and Zurbuchen and ULA CEO Tory Bruno will likely hold joint news conferences.

The emails, and an accompanying Microsoft Word document, include allegations that Musk has run roughshod over US regulatory agencies but acted more subserviently to Chinese regulators when it comes to his Tesla automotive business. None of this information is particularly new to those who track the space and automotive industries. Musk is stubborn and has always had a rocky relationship with regulating agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Communications Commission. And US companies must play by strict Chinese rules to operate in China.

United Launch Alliance President and CEO Tory Bruno leads a tour for former Vice President Mike Pence, former second lady Karen Pence, and NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot on Feb. 20, 2018.
Enlarge / United Launch Alliance President and CEO Tory Bruno leads a tour for former Vice President Mike Pence, former second lady Karen Pence, and NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot on Feb. 20, 2018.

In the April and May emails, Sabathier told Solomon that then-incoming NASA Administrator Bill Nelson should be made aware of the Trump administration’s favoritism of SpaceX and should be encouraged to unwind it. Sabathier attempted to paint Musk as a strong Republican backer who used his influence to win NASA contracts. And in writing to Solomon, Sabathier noted Musk’s anti-union efforts and said Solomon should share this information with his White House contacts.

For example, in one email from April 23, Solomon thanked Sabathier for sending him an article from a conservative website, Townhall.com, that criticized Musk for his disregard of safety. After receiving the article, Solomon wrote to Sabathier, “This is very helpful!!!! I will be meeting with the White House Public Engagement staff next week & will raise our concerns with Elan Musk [sic] & his anti-labor company.”

In response, Sabathier emailed back, “Let me know if there’s anything else you need—we are here to serve!”

If these emails are valid, and there is little reason to think they are not, they paint a portrait of ULA smearing a competitor, SpaceX, because it has won more contracts from the federal government. It seems like a somewhat ham-fisted attempt, as it is difficult to see Democratic White House officials being persuaded by opinion articles in publications like Townhall.

Echoes in history

Notably, this leak comes about five years after another ULA official, Brett Tobey, spoke candidly before a class at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Not realizing that his remarks were being recorded, Tobey addressed an Air Force launch contract ULA had not opted to bid for because it could not compete with SpaceX’s prices.

“We’re going to have to figure out how to bid these things at a much lower cost,” Tobey said in March 2016. “And the government can’t just say, ‘ULA has a great track record; they’ve done 105 launches in a row with 100 percent mission success, and we can give it to them on a silver platter even though their costs are two or three times as high.'”

Since then, ULA, under Tory Bruno’s leadership, has sought to become more competitive with SpaceX in terms of price, and it has won industry kudos for doing so. But it is difficult for ULA, which is co-owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to make meaningful progress. One reason is that the parent companies seek to harvest profits from ULA rather than investing in innovation that might allow Bruno to better compete with SpaceX.

As a result, it appears that ULA is continuing to lobby the government about Musk and SpaceX, asserting that they have won government contracts through an unfair process. Most of these allegations are untrue. NASA has said time and again that SpaceX often offers the lowest price and timeliest service, such as with the commercial crew program.

Both SpaceX and Boeing were awarded multibillion-dollar contracts in 2014 to deliver NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX and its Crew Dragon launched its first NASA astronauts in May 2020. Despite receiving about 40 percent more funding from NASA for the same service, Boeing and ULA are unlikely to fly NASA astronauts until the second half of 2022 at the earliest.

Days after his classroom talk in 2016, Tobey resigned from ULA. A similar fate may soon await Sabathier.