Yet even if the explanation for SpaceX’s higher bid is related to infrastructure and development support, that fact indicates that launching spy satellites, which ULA has done for years, requires more government funding for such expenses than does launching the navigation or communication satellites that SpaceX has so far launched, mainly for commercial customers and NASA.

The Air Force said an undisclosed percentage of both companies’ fiscal 2022 deals would go toward undefined “launch service support,” activities that are not tied to any particular launch, such as ensuring facilities are secure or maintaining launch-pad equipment.

All of this suggests that government support for its contractors’ businesses — what some might call, to use Musk’s word, a subsidy — is a part of contracting with the Air Force. The open questions include how much each company is getting, for what purposes and for how long.

“Now that SpaceX is an established player, there are no doubt going to be costs that SpaceX did not perhaps perceive when they were the outside player,” Caceres said.

Harrison said that “there is a bit of irony” in SpaceX, having fought its way into the market by offering lower prices and decrying subsidies, now apparently accepting such support funds. To be sure, ULA, too, received several billion dollars in subsidies over the years as the sole provider of Air Force national-security launch services.

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