The unmanned Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX on a cargo resupply service mission to the International Space Station lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, January 10, 2015. REUTERS/Scott Audette (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TRANSPORT)

A senior executive of SpaceX, the space launch provider, has mocked the company in charge of the US’s most sensitive satellite launches, in a tetchy congressional hearing dominated by fears about US access to space.

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s chief operating officer, was appearing before a subcommittee of the US House’s armed services select committee alongside Tory Bruno, chief executive of United Launch Alliance.

The two made a number of pointed comments about each other before Ms Shotwell responded sarcastically when asked why SpaceX thought it could provide launches to the US government for an average $100m. SpaceX claims ULA’s launches cost US taxpayers an average of $400m each.

Ms Shotwell was asked why the company claimed to be able to offer its services for 25 per cent of the ULA price.

“It’s hard for me to say,” Ms Shotwell replied. “I don’t know how to build a $400m rocket. The more difficult question would be to say that I don’t understand how ULA are as expensive as they are.”

Ms Shotwell’s comments were the latest of several incidents of public sniping between SpaceX and ULA over their respective roles in the US’s national security launch programme. SpaceX has regularly insinuated that the air force’s closeness to ULA — which handles all sensitive military satellite launches — has made officials drag their feet over certifying SpaceX to handle some of the launches.

The two companies are now critical, however, to the US’s ability to fulfil the legal requirement that it have two separate launch systems suited to all its needs.

ULA, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, intends to keep operating its Atlas V rocket, capable of lifting all but the heaviest payloads, while SpaceX expects to receive certification by June that its Falcon 9 rocket is safe enough to carry military satellites to space. It also expects later this year to fly for the first time the Falcon Heavy rocket capable of carrying the very heaviest payloads to space.

ULA had previously maintained a separate, expensive-to-operate launch system — known as Delta — to ensure the US could reach space even if a fault emerged with Atlas V. It now intends to stop operating that rocket.

The situation is further complicated by another legal requirement, that ULA does not buy any more of the Russian RD180 motors that power the Atlas V and instead develop a purely US-built alternative.

Ms Shotwell said that launches of the Falcon 9 would cost the air force between $80m and $90m, while launches of the Falcon Heavy would cost between $150m and $160m.

Mr Bruno, who was appointed last year partly to bring down ULA’s costs, angrily denied that its launches cost as much as $400m, saying each averaged $164m and he was seeking to bring many down to $100m.

The hearing heard that, even with a series of new developments under way, there was likely to be a “multiyear” gap when the US lacked two independent systems for launching satellites.

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