U.S. Air Force Still Deciding if Initial Falcon 9 v1.1 Flights Count Toward Certfication

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force expects to decide by early 2014 if the maiden launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket will count toward a new process to qualify the company to launch national security assets, a service spokeswoman said.

Officials with Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) expect credit for the flight despite being unable to reignite the rocket’s upper-stage engine in a test that followed deployment of the satellite payload. They also expect to service to count the following mission, a Dec. 3 flight for satellite operator SES, Emily Shanklin, a SpaceX spokeswoman, said in a Dec. 23 email.

During the second flight, the Falcon 9 v1.1’s upper stage successfully reignited to place the SES-8 telecommunications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit, a first for Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX. SES elected to proceed with the launch despite the reignition failure in the previous mission.

“All mission requirements were met and thus we believe the Air Force will count these flights towards certification,” Shanklin said.

The formal Air Force decision in the coming weeks will provide a clearer look at how the service will employ the so-called New Entrant Certification Guide for companies like SpaceX that are hoping to break into the national security launch business.

Currently, the Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets built and operated by United Launch Alliance (ULA) of Denver have a virtual lock on that market. But the lack of competition has been a sore spot with lawmakers, and the White House explicitly called for increased competition in its new national space transportation policy released in November.

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 market.

While SpaceX’s standard Falcon 9 rocket has flown five successful missions to date, including three cargo delivery missions to the international space station, the Sept. 29 flight marked SpaceX’s first attempt at earning credit for national security launch certification.

The upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1, featuring more-powerful engines and a larger payload fairing, debuted carrying the Canadian Space Agency’s Cassiope space weather satellite and three secondary payloads to low Earth orbit. It is expected to be SpaceX’s workhorse vehicle for the foreseeable future.

“The Sept. 29 flight has not yet been certified,” Christina Greer, a spokeswoman at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), wrote in an email to SpaceNews Dec. 17. “We are close to making a final determination regarding whether the first Falcon 9 v1.1 flight will count as one of the three certification flights. We anticipate completing this assessment in the next two or three weeks.”

The Air Force will evaluate the Dec. 3 flight “after delivery of all launch and post-flight reports,” Alicia Garges, an SMC spokeswoman, wrote Dec. 13. “The decision will depend on the Air Force’s assessment of the launch system’s performance during ground systems operations throughout the duration of the flight. Additionally, the vehicle configuration will be evaluated to determine if the flight demonstrated a common launch vehicle configuration with the other certification flights and the configuration of the launch system to be certified.”

If Air Force officials count both the Sept. 29 and Dec. 3 flights, SpaceX would need one additional successful flight for the Falcon 9 v1.1 to earn certification. But Garges said the number of successful flights required is only a portion of the certification effort. The Falcon 9 v1.1 program also must pass technical reviews and audits of the launch vehicle, ground systems and manufacturing processes.

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