3 U.S. Agencies Adopt Rocket Standards

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force, the National Reconnaissance Office and NASA have adopted common standards for certifying rockets to carry government-sponsored payloads in a step toward ending United Launch Alliance’s monopoly on launching U.S. national security satellites.

The common framework resembles the NASA Launch Services (NLS) 2 contract, the civil agency’s vehicle for procuring expendable rockets. Under NLS 2, aspiring launch providers will have to demonstrate the reliability of their vehicles before they can be entrusted with high-priority payloads.

Although they will draw on a common framework for rocket certification, each agency will remain free to tweak its requirements to fit the needs of its own missions, according to Oct. 14 press releases from NASA and the Air Force.

“This strategy is the best balance of ensuring reliable access to space while encouraging competition and innovation in the launch industry,” Air Force Undersecretary Erin Conaton said in a statement. “We are committed to providing a level playing field to all competitors in the interest of ensuring the best capability for our warfighters and the best value to the American public.”

The tri-agency agreement was greeted with enthusiasm by Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), which has bet a significant part of its business case on being able to snatch U.S. Air Force launch contracts from United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

“The U.S. Air Force is the largest launch customer in the world, but is currently served by a monopoly provider whose prices have consistently risen,” SpaceX said in an Oct. 14 statement. “Equitable criteria for new entrants, coupled with meaningful opportunities for competition, would save the American taxpayer billions.”

The Air Force is now in the process of identifying missions that new entrants could fly in order to demonstrate the capabilities of their rockets. The service is also working on a certification guide for new entrants, although it did not say when that might be published.