But in early 2014, days before SpaceX's final required test flight, the Air Force announced it was cutting the competitive launches to seven. SpaceX believes that to mean a maximum of seven, with the possibility that number could dwindle to as few as one. And even the "competitive" bids, according to some within SpaceX, could be tilted in ULA's favor.
The Air Force's current plan, should it go through unaltered, will put satellite launch contracts out of reach for SpaceX for a half decade.
For Musk, who has spent years trying to trying to break into the Air Force's buying process — and whose company has spent years trying to meet the Air Force's launch standards — that's a result too painful to accept.
And so while the legal action is a gamble, Musk says it's sue or admit defeat. "We're essentially left with the only option, which is to file a protest."
A Battle for Billions
The Air Force contracts up for grabs in the court battle are not insignificant. The program, known as the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, will launch around 50 military satellites over the next five years, many of them GPS satellites. At a total cost of $1.5 billion, the launches are the fourth largest line item in the 2014 defense budget.
Musk wants in on the action and stands to profit hugely from it. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell called national security launches "by far the largest single market" the company wants to compete for, pegging potential sales at $3 billion a year.
If the suit is successful and ULA's contracts for 36 launches are thrown into question, SpaceX says it has the rockets to compete for about 60 percent of them.
Even if it doesn't win the suit outright, SpaceX has said it's open to an out-of-court settlement. It has declined to speculate on what that might look like or whether it's likely.
With any sort of expanded launch access, the company says its rockets could quickly bring about billions in savings for taxpayers — but only if it's given the chance.
According to SpaceX, ULA has repeatedly overrun its costs — as much as 75 percent over budget. ULA pegs its cost per launch at just more than $200 million. SpaceX says it's closer to $500 million.
Regardless, Shotwell claims SpaceX can put the Pentagon's satellites in orbit for closer to $100 million. When asked why her company's rockets are so cheap, Shotwell says, she counters by asking why everyone else's are so expensive.
Critics say it's easy for SpaceX to make those claims when it hasn't had to deliver on them yet. But the company points to its track record with NASA, for whom it's slated to launch 12 missions at about $133 million apiece. If the country's preeminent space agency can trust SpaceX with its payloads — and save money in the process — then what's keeping the Air Force from doing the same?
ULA says it's not as simple as Musk's arithmetic would have taxpayers — and the court — believe. To them, SpaceX is an unproven competitor making overstated claims that don't account for the nuances of the situation.