WASHINGTON — With its successful launch of the Thaicom-6 commercial telecommunications satellite Jan. 6, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) appears to have met the U.S. Air Force’s requirements to bid for national security launches and challenge the market incumbent, United Launch Alliance (ULA) of Denver.

While Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX has not received formal certification to launch operational national security satellites aboard its Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket, Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told SpaceNews Jan. 7 he has not seen anything from the vehicle’s three flights to date to prevent that from happening.

SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin said via email that the company believes the Falcon 9 v1.1 has now met the three-flight certification requirement for the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.

If the rocket is certified, SpaceX would become the first new competitive entrant in the EELV program, which is used to launch virtually all operational U.S. national security satellites. Today nearly all of those missions are launched aboard ULA’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, and, coupled with soaring costs, that has made the EELV program a lightning rod for criticism. 

In 2012, the Air Force announced it was negotiating the purchase, on a sole-source basis, of up to 36 EELV rocket cores over five years from ULA. At the same time, however, the service said it plans to competitively award an additional 14 missions to give new entrants such as SpaceX a chance to compete. Under the Air Force’s so-called New Entrant Certification Guide used to vet competitors in the launch business, companies are expected to complete three successful launches of their rockets, including at least two consecutively. 

The Falcon 9 v1.1, an upgraded variant of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket, debuted Sept. 29 carrying the Canadian Space Agency’s Cassiope space weather satellite and three secondary payloads to low Earth orbit. The second Falcon 9 v1.1 successfully launched the SES-8 telecommunications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit Dec. 3.

Officials with Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles have said they expect the certification process for each flight to take about three months. The process also entails looking at various technical assessments and audits of the vehicle, its associated ground systems and manufacturing processes. 

Once its rocket earns certification, SpaceX will enter a newly created process to bid for national security missions.

The brewing competition has already garnered significant scrutiny from lawmakers eager to ensure that the new entrants get a fair shake. The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act includes language that requires the Air Force secretary to submit a draft of its request for proposal on the EELV competition to the Pentagon’s congressional oversight committees. 

The bill also directs the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the congressional watchdog agency, to review “the methodology, potential challenges, gaps, and acquisition planning process of the Air Force for evaluating competitors,” a statement accompanying the legislation said. Lawmakers directed the agency to complete the review before the Air Force releases its draft request for proposals for the competitively selected missions.

Air Force officials have stressed that certified companies are not guaranteed launch contracts, only the right to compete for business. ULA has indicated that it intends to bid for the contested missions.

Shelton has said repeatedly he is pleased with ULA’s record, but thinks the price of launching rockets is too expensive. In a speech to students at George Washington University here Jan. 7, he praised Elon Musk, SpaceX’s chief executive.

“I don’t doubt that guy anymore, by the way,” Shelton said. “What he says, he’s going to do.”

The Defense Department is expected to spend about $19 billion on launch costs over the next five years, according to a GAO report.

SpaceX’s leadership has said they believe the company can save the country as much as $1 billion per year, Shanklin said.

“We’ll wait to see what their prices look like,” Shelton said.

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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...