Brig. Gen. Roger Teague, U.S. Air Force Space Command. Credit: Photo by Tom Kimmell

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A high-ranking U.S. Air Force official said he was “absolutely” confident that a rocket built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) would carry high-value national security cargo.

The vote of confidence, from Brig. Gen. George Teague, director of strategic plans, programs and analyses for Air Force Space Command, came as an answer to a question from the audience during an April 10 panel discussion here at the 29th National Space Symposium. The question was whether the SpaceX-built Falcon 9 rocket would ever carry national security assets.

“We certainly look forward to being a launch service provider for national security missions,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX.

National security launches currently are the near-exclusive province of Denver-based United Launch Alliance (ULA), a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that is prime contractor on the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. The Defense Department last year authorized the Air Force to buy up to 36 rocket cores from ULA while setting aside 14 missions for competition.

The EELV block buy is part of the Air Force strategy to bring down the cost of a program that according to a 2012 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office is expected to cost $19 billion from 2013 to 2017.

Industry officials have said that given the number of EELV rockets already on order for the Air Force, coupled with relatively low launch rates, it could be years before national security payloads fly on alternative vehicles such as the Falcon 9.

The Falcon 9 has flown several successful missions for NASA, although a premature shutdown of one of the vehicle’s nine first-stage engines during an October mission resulted in the eventual loss of a secondary payload.

“Can the government afford to have multiple providers?” Shotwell asked rhetorically. “It’s the only way the government realizes they can have assured access to space.”

Michael Gass, ULA’s president and chief executive, said he had no doubt that SpaceX could support national security customers.

“Can they? Absolutely,” Gass said. “But what’s the right acquisition strategy?”

Gass and Shotwell, competitors at opposite ends of the table on stage, joked several times that the panel discussion could degenerate into a circus reminiscent of “The Jerry Springer Show,” in which guests frequently goaded one another into fisticuffs.

On a more serious note, Shotwell said she expected software issues to be the biggest hurdle to SpaceX becoming certified for national security missions. She cited an example in which the Hawthorne, Calif., company faced three software audits in eight weeks by NASA officials seeking “insight to be confident that we know what we’re doing.”

Much of the panel focused on the abstract idea of mission assurance. In a keynote speech here April 9, Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said mission assurance remained a high priority.

“We cannot compromise on mission assurance,” he said. “Dollars spent on mission assurance are very cheap in the wake of a failure.”

Teague said about 2 percent of government space program budgets are spent on mission assurance. Gass said on commercial programs that figure may be closer to 6 to 10 percent.

Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...