WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s bid for access to the U.S. Defense Department launch market has many champions on Capitol Hill, but the chairman of the House Armed Services strategic force subcommittee, which oversees military space activities, remains firmly in the skeptics’ camp.
Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), whose home state hosts a major production facility of SpaceX archrival United Launch Alliance, said Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX “has a ways to go” before it can be entrusted with billion-dollar national security satellites.
As evidence, Rogers cited a letter from Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James that responds to questions he had about anomalies on past flights of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and about the Air Force’s pending certification of that vehicle.
Rogers’ office provided a copy of the heavily redacted letter to SpaceNews.
The Air Force is reviewing data from three recent successful flights of the Falcon 9 v1.1, the rocket’s current variant, in order to certify the vehicle to carry military payloads, which currently are launched almost exclusively by ULA.
In her May 20 letter to Rogers, James says one of the most significant anomalies on a SpaceX certification flight occurred on the maiden launch of the Falcon 9 v1.1 variant Sept. 29. The mission successfully placed a Canadian satellite into low Earth orbit, but a postdeployment reignition of the rocket’s upper stage — intended as a demonstration of the Falcon 9’s ability to deploy geostationary-orbiting spacecraft — did not take place as planned.
James’ letter implies that other anomalies have occurred on SpaceX certification flights, but any details that might have been included were redacted — by the Air Force, according to Rogers’ office — to protect proprietary information. “These anomalies are continuing to be discussed with SpaceX,” James wrote.
“The Air Force response makes clear why the new entrant certification process is robust and deliberate,” Rogers said in a statement emailed to SpaceNews. “The national security space manifest, with its multi-billion dollar investments in capabilities that our warfighters rely on, sometimes with their lives, cannot be put at risk. While I look forward to real competition to bring down launch prices, it is clear from this response that we have a ways to go.”
In an April 29 letter to James and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Rogers raised questions about an anomaly on a 2012 Falcon 9 mission that was not a part of the certfication process. It was SpaceX’s first commercially contracted cargo resupply mission to the international space station in October 2012 using an earlier variant of the Falcon 9, a flight that also carried a machine-to-machine messaging satellite for Orbcomm of Rochelle Park, New Jersey.
During that mission, one of the rocket’s nine Merlin first-stage engines shut down prematurely. Although the mission ultimately succeeded in delivering its cargo payload to the station, the anomaly resulted in Orbcomm’s satellite being left in an unsustainable orbit. The satellite re-entered the atmosphere shortly thereafter.
Rogers is not the only lawmaker to raise questions about rumored anomalies on Falcon 9 missions, all of which have been successful to date. On July 15, Reps. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) wrote a letter, which they publicly released, to Bolden seeking information on what they characterized as an “epidemic of anomalies” with the Falcon 9 as well as SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule.
ULA is headquartered in Denver and has its main production facility in Decatur, Alabama.
In his letter to James, Rogers also asked whether the Air Force had any significant concerns as it works to certify Falcon 9 to carry military payloads. James’ response to that question was redacted from her response.
The Air Force announced July 15 that it had accepted the three requisite Falcon 9 flights for review as part of the certification process, which the service hopes to complete by December to enable SpaceX to compete for a classified satellite launch scheduled to be put up for bids at that time. Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told SpaceNews July 16 that the Air Force and SpaceX have completed three of the 19 engineering review boards necessary for certification.
John Taylor, a SpaceX spokesman, pointed to the service’s acceptance of the flights as proof that the company is moving in the right direction.
“The Air Force has officially certified as successful the three flights that the Congressman asked about last spring. SpaceX and the Air Force expect to complete the certification process later this year,” Taylor said via email July 21. “If allowed to compete for [Pentagon] business, SpaceX will provide the Nation with efficient and highly reliable launch services, while saving taxpayers billions of dollars, a goal that everyone should fully support.”