CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The head of Air Force Space Command has a response to Space Exploration Technologies Corp. CEO Elon Musk, who, during a spirited March 7 Senate hearing, asked why if SpaceX’s rockets “are good enough for NASA, are they not good enough for the Air Force?”

“I’ll tell you why,” Gen. William Shelton said during a National Space Club Florida Committee luncheon speech in Cape Canaveral, Fla., March 11. 

“At about $1.5 billion — and sometimes higher — national security payloads have to get there. We have to make sure we’ve done due diligence on the part of the government to make sure that that rocket is going to deliver safely and reliably,” Shelton said. 

SpaceX, along with Orbital Sciences Corp. and ATK, are going through a rigorous certification process that will enable them to compete with United Launch Alliance to fly major military payloads. 

SpaceX is furthest along, with one of its three required upgraded Falcon 9 rocket flights presently certified. 

United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, so far has successfully flown 68 military missions on its Atlas and Delta rockets. 

“We’re just not going to give up on mission assurance. There’s a lot pressure out there to make us dial back on mission assurance, but I’ll have a pair of treads running all over me before that happens,” Shelton said.

High cost is just part of the concern, he added. 

“It’s also the opportunity cost. If we lose one of those precious payloads, it takes us a long time to produce a replacement. That creates, normally, a gap in the constellation we’re trying to fill, so there’s a lot that goes into this,” Shelton said.

“Right now, we’re launching space station resupply missions with SpaceX. We’re launching food, we’re launching clothing. … That doesn’t begin to represent the catastrophic loss much like a national security payload failure would,” Shelton said. “There’s a big difference.”

The stakes could shift dramatically if NASA selects SpaceX to fly its astronauts to the station. SpaceX is among at least three firms vying for a final round of funding for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which is intended to lead to space taxi flight services before the end of 2017. 

Shelton, who is expected to be succeeded this year by his deputy, Lt. Gen. John Hyten, has praised SpaceX and Musk as recently as January. 

“I don’t doubt that guy anymore, by the way,” Shelton said in a Jan. 7 speech to students at George Washington University in Washington. “What he says, he’s going to do.”

Shelton has said he expects SpaceX to earn the certification necessary to bid on national security launches later this year.


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