Air Force certifies SpaceX for satellite launches

SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket

An artist's rendering of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

After a sometimes contentious year of tests, negotiations and a lawsuit, the Air Force ultimately saw no reason to delay certifying Space Exploration Technologies Corp. to compete for launches of national security space missions.

The service was expected to certify SpaceX to compete with United Launch Alliance (ULA) sometime in June. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center instead announced on Tuesday (May 26) that the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has been certified to launch some military satellites.

The first competition could come as early as June, when the Air Force expects to release a request for proposals to launch the first of a constellation of next-generation GPS III satellites. ULA and SpaceX are the only certified launch providers.

"SpaceX’s emergence as a viable commercial launch provider provides the opportunity to compete launch services for the first time in almost a decade," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in announcing the certification. "Ultimately, leveraging of the commercial space market drives down cost to the American taxpayer and improves our military’s resiliency."

The rivals will compete to provide the Air Force with launch services under the Enhanced Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. The Air Force confirmed it has invested more than $60 million over two years to certify SpaceX using 125 separate launch criteria.

"Our intent is to promote the viability of multiple EELV-class launch providers as soon as feasible," added Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the Air Force's program executive officer for space.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the certification was a key step toward reintroducing competition for military satellite launches.

SpaceX, which has flown a half-dozen resupply missions to the International Space Station, last year challenged ULA's monopoly on military launches, filing a lawsuit contesting the Air Force’s $11 billion sole-source contract for EELV launches with ULA, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Despite the suit, the Air Force continued with EELV certifications tests with SpaceX, and the company in January agreed to drop the suit as the Air Force said that, pending final certification, SpaceX would be able to compete for future launches.

Also playing into the future of the EELV program is a congressional mandate to end ULA’s reliance on the Russian RD-180 first-stage rocket engine, which ULA uses in its Atlas V rockets. Amid tensions over Russia’s incursions into Ukraine, Congress mandated that the Air Force find a U.S.-made replacement by 2019, when ULA’s contract runs out. Although the Air Force has said that 2019 deadline might be unrealistic, several companies are working on developing a new rocket engine, including a ULA/Blue Origin partnership, ATK Aerospace Group and Aerojet Rocketdyne.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told Congress in March that the company could launch military satellites aboard its Falcon Heavy for between $150 million and $160 million per launch. ULA claims it can launch military satellites for about $225 million, or 30 percent less than what the Air Force currently pays for launches.

"SpaceX is expected to eventually win [Air Force] contracts, providing the company with a huge new market, while forcing competitors to respond," said defense analyst Maksim Soshkin of IBISWorld. "For its part, ULA’s restructuring plans will probably lead to a reduction of its own launch costs, with the company claiming a 50 percent reduction. As a result of this increase in competition, government launch costs are expected to start declining."

Both companies will now have to back up the tough talk with concrete proposals for launching GPS III satellites that are expected to begin in fiscal 2017.

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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