DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The research center hired by the U.S. Air Force to evaluate the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket for national security launches has no intention of shortcutting the process or deviating from the certification procedures it has used in the past with U.S. Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets, a senior center official said.

Ray Johnson, vice president of space launch operations at the Aerospace Corp., said the goal is to have the first initial assessment of Falcon 9 completed by June, after which an in-depth, subsystem-by-subsystem engineering evaluation will begin featuring 17 separate engineering review boards.

He said the process is on track to be completed by the year’s end. Lt. Gen. Charles R. Davis, the military deputy in the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, told SpaceNews this month that it does not expect to be finished with the assessment until March 2015.

Johnson said Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX might be permitted to compete for U.S. Air Force launches before the rocket is fully certified, but that no actual contract award would be concluded before the entire certification process is completed.

Addressing the World Space Risk Forum here May 14, Johnson said that while SpaceX is the furthest along in the Air Force’s new entrant certification process, it is not the only company that has filed a statement of intent to compete for Air Force launch contracts.

Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences has filed documentation with the Aerospace Corp. to begin the certification process for a version of Orbital’s Antares rocket, which has not yet performed the kind of launch the Aerospace Corp. would count as one of the three successes needed. Like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Orbital’s Antares has flown cargo missions to the international space station, but because these flights do not demonstrate a satellite’s separation and deployment, they are not valid as part of the evaluation process.

In addition to Orbital, ATK has filed documentation for a version of its Liberty rocket, which has never flown. Johnson said it remains to be seen whether Orbital and ATK, whose aerospace units are merging, will combine their certification requests into a single vehicle.

SpaceX has filed a statement of intent to seek certification for its Falcon Heavy rocket, but this vehicle likewise has not yet flown.

Johnson said the last time the Air Force eased its certification requirements — and halved Aerospace Corp.’s workforce — the result was the failure of six rockets in the late 1990s, including three high-cost Air Force missions. After that, the Air Force and Aerospace Corp. rebuilt the mission-assurance program and, since then, “it’s gone reasonably well for us,” Johnson said, pointing to a record of 87 launches and no failures between 1999 and 2013. The record has since been extended to 90 launches with the three successful missions so far in 2014.

SpaceX has completed two successful missions carrying commercial telecommunications satellites into geostationary transfer orbit — SES-8 in December, Thaicom-6 in January. But while both carried commercial insurance policies and were judged successes, the Air Force’s certification process has not yet arrived at the same conclusion. The Air Force has said it would officially count one Falcon 9 launch to date, the September launch of a Canadian government space-weather satellite.

Johnson said that given what he knows about SpaceX’s two commercial launches, it is likely that they too will be qualified as successes in the Air Force/Aerospace Corp. certification process.

SpaceX has filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to pressure the Air Force to reopen a contract award to United Launch Alliance, which operates the Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets and is now the sole supplier of launch services for mid- and large-size satellites to the Air Force. SpaceX’s reasoning is that since it is all but certain to pass Air Force muster, the service should have delayed awarding a contract for 36 rocket cores to ULA.

Expandable Launch Vehicle Record Since Mid-1999

Johnson did not address the litigation, but said his department will not dilute its evaluation for SpaceX or Orbital or any other new entrant. All must clear the same hurdles.

“I often get the interesting comment that these are new systems, new entrants, and these guys have a new way of doing business, and really we really shouldn’t need to do the same level of mission assurance work,” Johnson said.

“Quite frankly, I don’t know where that’s coming from. Although those are all nice words, until we see something with engineering [history] on it that really demonstrates the robustness of these systems — that in fact they do match what they claim — we will treat them as we have treated other launch systems,” Johnson said. “We will provide our customer an accurate assessment and the customer can decide what they want to do with that. I don’t see any major changes. We will continue to run a data-driven, not rhetoric-driven, process and we will have to satisfy ourselves that these systems pose acceptable risks.”

One criticism leveled at the Air Force, and by implication the Aerospace Corp. as well, is that their mission-assurance procedures add large costs to the launch of an Air Force mission. SpaceX has estimated that once certified by the Air Force, the price of a Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket will rise by as much as 50 percent just to accommodate the new oversight and verification paperwork.

“When I see those numbers quoted, I truly wonder where they came from, given that we haven’t finalized all the things we’re talking about and asking them for,” Johnson said of the Falcon 9 certification process. He said some outside analyses tend to mix in mission assurance with other charges, making it appear as though risk reduction is hugely expensive.

“People often ask what mission assurance costs, and they want to compare it to the cost of commercial insurance,” Johnson said. “Typically mission assurance runs between 2 percent and 5 percent of the value of the [satellite payload]. We have only one standard we follow, because it’s basically the same comprehensive process for all the systems, so 2 percent tends to be for our more expensive systems and 5 percent could be fore a GPS satellite, for example.”

Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes


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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.