SpaceX, U.S. Air Force Sign Falcon 9 v1.1 Data Sharing Pact

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WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., has signed a data sharing agreement with the U.S. Air Force as part of a process intended to certify the company’s Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket to launch national security satellites.

The Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) allows SpaceX and the Air Force to share data about the rocket while protecting the company’s proprietary information.

As part of the agreement, staff at Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif., will monitor three Falcon launches and study the vehicle’s flight history, design, reliability, process maturity, safety systems, manufacturing and operations, systems engineering, risk management, and launch facilities, according to a June 11 Air Force press release.

This will help the Air Force determine whether the Falcon 9 v1.1 can launch future Air Force missions, consistent with the service’s so-called New Entrant Certification Guide. Currently, the Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets built and operated by United Launch Alliance (ULA) of Denver have a virtual lock on the U.S. national security launch market.

SpaceX’s standard Falcon 9 rocket has flown five successful missions to date, including three cargo delivery missions to the international space station. The upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1, featuring more-powerful engines and a larger payload fairing, is expected to debut this year.

The Air Force expects to sign similar CRADA agreements for SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket and Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket, according to the release. The Falcon Heavy is in development; the medium-lift Antares flew a successful demonstration mission earlier this year.

As part of its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, the Air Force is negotiating the purchase, on a sole-source basis, of up to 36 rocket cores over five years from ULA. The service plans to competitively award an additional 14 missions to give new entrants such as SpaceX a chance to break into the national security launch market.

Air Force officials said in the release that certified companies are not guaranteed a contract, only the right to compete for business. The first competitive launch contracts are expected to be awarded in 2015.