WASHINGTON — Should Space Exploration Technologies Corp. earn certification to launch U.S. national security payloads aboard its Falcon 9 rocket, the company will be eligible to bid on seven such missions from 2015-2017, half as many as originally expected, a top U.S. Air Force space acquisition officer said March 5.

The reduction in the number of competitively awarded Air Force launches is driven in part by a slowdown in procurement of GPS 3 navigation satellites beginning in the 2015 budget year, primarily because earlier-generation GPS satellites are lasting longer in orbit than expected, said Maj. Gen. Robert McMurry, director of Space Programs in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition. Another factor is a delay in the delivery of the first GPS 3 spacecraft to 2016, he said.

Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX is the front-runner to become the first new competitive entrant in the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, which is used to launch virtually all operational U.S. national security satellites. Nearly all of those missions are currently launched aboard EELV prime contractor United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets.  

In 2012, the Air Force announced it was negotiating the purchase, on a sole-source basis, of up to 36 Atlas and Delta rocket cores over five years from ULA. At the same time, however, the service said it planned to competitively award an additional 14 missions to give companies like SpaceX a chance to win Pentagon business.

Many of the launches targeted for competition are of the next-generation GPS 3  satellites, which operate in medium Earth orbit of roughly 20,000 kilometers in altitude.

But the planned slowdown in procurement of GPS 3 satellites, first disclosed March 4 as part of U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2015 budget request to Congress, would push the award five of the associated launch contracts beyond 2017, McMurry said at a budget briefing for reporters. He did not identify which seven missions would be awarded competitively before then.

Two other satellites, one which was only identified as an  Air Force Space Command mission and one as a missile warning satellite, previously were slated to launch on competitively procured rockets, McMurry said.

SpaceX Chief Execitive Elon Musk, in an interview with SpaceNews, expressed concern about the launch procurement delays, and said the pain from the tightening defense budget “should be proportionally divided” between United Launch Alliance and the new entrants. 

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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...