Military certification the next big test for Falcon Heavy

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Air Force certification could take as many as 14 or as few as two flights.

WASHINGTON — The inaugural launch on Tuesday of the world’s most powerful rocket sets the stage for SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy to begin the qualification process to compete for lucrative U.S. government contracts.

The U.S. Air Force has already booked the massive rocket for a June launch of a test payload. But the Falcon Heavy may have to nail many more missions before it passes the threshold to be certified by the U.S. Air Force.

Certification could take as many as 14 or as few as two flights, a spokesperson for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Command, in Los Angeles, told SpaceNews. For new rockets like the Falcon Heavy, there are many variables at play, such as the confidence the government has in the design and its record flying commercial payloads into orbit.

The process is articulated in detail in the United States Air Force Launch Services New Entrant Certification Guide that was published in 2011. The Air Force calls it a “risk-based approach” with four certification options based on the maturity of the launch system. These options require as many as 14 flights, or as few as two. With fewer flights there would be more in-depth technical evaluations.

Once the Air Force signs off on the company’s “statement of intent,” the government and SpaceX would negotiate a certification plan under a formal agreement. The Air Force would then conduct a technical evaluation and detailed analysis of the launch vehicle design and a review of the company’s manufacturing and system engineering processes. It also would analyze data from the rocket’s flight history.

At a news conference Tuesday at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said he could not predict how many launches the Falcon Heavy will have to perform before it’s accepted for national security missions. This vehicle, he said, “opens up a whole new class of payloads” and “it’s up to customers what they want to launch.”

The Pentagon would expect the Falcon Heavy to compete for launches of large, expensive spy satellites that now can only be flown by the United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 rocket.

SpaceX already has a number of commercial customers lined up, Musk said. “We’ll be doing several Falcon Heavy flights per year. If there’s a big national security satellite due for launch in three or four years we’ll probably have a dozen or more launches done by then.”

SpaceX adviser John Young told SpaceNews’ Jeff Foust that the “nearest peer competitor” to the Falcon Heavy is the Delta 4 Heavy at “roughly half the thrust and from four to as much as 10 times the cost.”

Young is a former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. “If I was still part of the DoD acquisition team I would be enormously excited,” he said.

Charles Miller, president of the consulting firm NextGen Space, said the Pentagon is in a comfortable position to “sit back and watch” how Falcon Heavy performs in upcoming commercial launches. “SpaceX will have more data, which will lower the risk to national security customers,” Miller said in an interview.

He does not anticipate SpaceX will have trouble getting approved. “SpaceX has a lot of experience under its belt going through the certification process with the DoD,” Miller said. “They have much better insight into what they think it will take. And they have the benefit from the systems that have been certified under Falcon 9.”

To get big military satellites into orbit, however, SpaceX may need the “stretch version” of the Falcon Heavy, said Miller. “One of the limits of the Falcon 9 for the DoD missions was that they needed a longer fairing. The payload was too tall for the existing fairing,” he said. “I’m hoping Elon Musk has a longer fairing on the Falcon Heavy.”

Ultimately the safety and performance record is what will matter the most, said Miller. “The government favors reliability more than cost, and there is good reason for that,” he said. Military and National Reconnaissance Office satellites typically cost more than the launch vehicle. “If satellites cost $500 million, or a billion dollars, you don’t care if the launch vehicle is $90 million or $140 million. The extra risk reduction is a rational thing when your satellites cost so much.”