WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. likely will be the lone challenger to United Launch Alliance for an initial round of competitively selected national security launches to be awarded starting next year, according to an Air Force official.

Rocket builder Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Virginia, and propulsion provider ATK Aerospace of Promontory, Utah, had said as recently as 2013 they were interested in launching national security space payloads and becoming new entrants for the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

But according to Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles R. Davis, the military deputy in the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, neither Orbital nor ATK has taken the necessary steps to certify their rockets to carry national security payloads. That likely means the companies will not be eligible to compete until the Air Force puts a second round of satellite launches out for competitive bids in 2018, Davis said in a May 8 interview.

“So far, as of yet, while they both expressed interest, neither has actually entered the certification process,” Davis said. “Neither one of them, if you will, is anywhere near the position SpaceX is in.”

The Air Force expects to certify SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, by March 2015. The service is spending more than $60 million and has 100 employees working on the process, Davis said.

Air Force officials have said repeatedly they believe other companies would follow SpaceX to challenge ULA to win national security launch contracts. According to a February 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office, Orbital and ATK were expected to submit plans to prove they could successfully launch satellites for the Air Force. A fourth company, Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver, was also expected to submit a certification plan for its Athena 3 rocket. Dee Valleras, a Lockheed Martin spokeswoman, said in a May 13 email the company was still developing its business case for the rocket.

ATK is a motor supplier for some of Orbital’s rockets, and the two companies recently announced plans to merge in a deal that requires approval from U.S. antitrust authorities. It is unclear whether the new company, to be called Orbital ATK, would pursue Air Force launch business. “We can’t comment on what the merged company will or will not do,” Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said via email May 6.

Davis said the merged company “very well could be looking” at the next phase of the EELV competition, which is expected to start in 2018 and include an open competition for every national security launch.

In order to a receive a request for proposals to win Air Force launch contracts, companies need to go through a rigorous certification process in which officials from the service learn nearly everything they can about the rocket in question. Orbital’s relevant launcher is the Antares; ATK has long proposed a vehicle dubbed Liberty 2.

Under the Air Force’s New Entrant Certification Guide, companies are expected to complete three successful launches of their rockets, including at least two consecutively. They must submit data from those launches for evaluation by the Air Force. Air Force officials have stressed that certified companies are not guaranteed launch contracts, only the right to compete for business.

Denver-based ULA has indicated that it intends to bid for the contested missions.

According to the GAO report, ATK expected to submit a statement of intent to certify its rocket by March 2013 and complete the process by late 2016. The company’s Liberty 2 rocket remains a design concept.

Orbital has submitted a statement of intent, Air Force officials said in March 2014. The company was negotiating a certification plan last year and its planned certification date was in the 2017-2018 time frame, according to the GAO report.

In congressional testimony in March, the GAO said several new entrants were “in varying stages” of the certification process.

The Air Force has said that beginning in 2018, it expects to put all of its launches out for competitive bids, one at a time. That likely would mean no more bulk purchases like the Air Force’s block buy of 36 rocket cores from ULA. SpaceX is protesting that sole-source contract, under which some 15 launcher cores have been ordered to date.

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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...