COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper hailed upstart launch services provider Space Exploration Technologies Corp. during a keynote address here at the 30th Space Symposium, endorsing competition in the U.S. government launch industry.

“I do want to give a shout out to SpaceX,” Clapper said May 22, offering support for the competition the company is offering to entrenched government launch services provider United Launch Alliance of Denver — which only hours before Clapper spoke launched a classified National Reconnaissance Office satellite out of Florida aboard an Atlas 5 rocket. 

“The way to drive down cost, typically, is through competition,” Clapper said, noting that “launch costs are a huge part of my budget.”

Clapper’s remarks came as a response to a question from the audience about whether he supported competition in the space launch industry.

In a report last year, the Government Accountability Office forecast the Pentagon would spend about $16 billion on launch services between 2014 and 2018. 

Citing recent visits to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket manufacturing plant in Hawthorne, California, and to its launch facilities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, Clapper characterized the company as ingenious, driven and aggressive.

The U.S. Air Force is now reviewing three SpaceX launches to certify that the company’s Falcon 9 rocket can safely loft sensitive military and intelligence payloads. The process is not moving fast enough for SpaceX, which has complained that Air Force officials have moved the goalposts on the company and delayed the date that Falcon 9 might carry what SpaceX founder and Chief Executive Elon Musk has called relatively run-of-the-mill satellites, such as GPS spacecraft.

SpaceX also sued the Air Force in April, petitioning the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to invalidate much of the service’s bulk order for ULA rocket cores so that SpaceX can compete for the business.

In a May 20 press conference at the symposium, Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, reiterated the service’s position that the Falcon 9 must be fully certified before SpaceX can compete to launch national security payloads. The Air Force has certified one Falcon 9 flight to date but does not expect to certify the two additional required missions, plus review the company’s processes, before late this year or early next year, he said.

Shelton said the Air Force has devoted more than $60 million and 100 employees to certifying the Falcon 9. “I think SpaceX would have a hard time going faster than we’re going,” he said.

Asked to comment on the lawsuit, Shelton said, “Generally, the person you do business with you don’t sue.” 

Meanwhile, Clapper offered no update on U.S. industry’s quest to sell higher-resolution Earth imagery on a commercial basis. 

Under a commercial remote sensing license from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colorado, may sell imagery with better than 50-centimeter spatial resolution — able to distinguish objects of that size on the ground — to U.S. government customers only.

The company has petitioned the U.S. government to allow it to sell images with a 25-centimeter spatial resolution on a commercial basis. The intelligence community, including the NRO, has endorsed the idea, which still needs approval from other parts of the executive branch, including the State Department.

In lieu of further insight into the government’s thinking on the matter, Clapper offered praise for the commercial imaging industry, noting that the intelligence community is becoming “ever more reliant on space systems.”

“The capabilities commercial space has now and the even better capabilities on the near horizon are a critical part of the [intelligence community’s] strategic plans,” Clapper said. “We all want commercial space imagery to do well. I have a lot invested in it, personally and professionally.”

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN

Staff writer Mike Gruss contributed to this story.

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...