SpaceX Could Be Cleared for U.S. Air Force Launches by Dec. 1

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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Rocket maker Space Exploration Technologies Corp. could earn U.S. Air Force certification to launch national security missions as soon as Dec. 1, according to the service’s top uniformed officer for space.

As recently as this past May, Air Force officials had said SpaceX might have to wait until March 2015 to win certification, which will allow it to compete with United Launch Alliance in the lucrative U.S. military launch marketplace.

In a speech here at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference, Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, said he loves the idea of competition and roots for SpaceX to succeed in its quest for national security launch dollars. He cautioned that “if they’re not ready, we have to stand up and say that.”

Nonetheless, “It’s in everybody’s interest to get there sooner,” he said.

As part of its plan to reduce its satellite launching costs while mollifying critics of ULA’s national security launch monopoly, the Air Force ordered a large batch of rockets on a sole-source basis from the incumbent while setting aside an additional seven to eight missions for competition. SpaceX is challenging the sole-source contract in a lawsuit filed in federal court filed in April.

In an amended complaint filed in June, SpaceX contends that the Air Force originally said it would certify the company’s Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket by December. The Air Force changed its projected certification date only after SpaceX filed the lawsuit, the amended complaint said.

To become certified, SpaceX and any other so-called new entrants in the marketplace must provide the Air Force with data from three successful launches for analysis and clear 19 engineering review boards, among other tasks. SpaceX has completed those three launches submitted the required data, and the last of the engineering review boards is expected to be completed in October, Hyten said.

Air Force officials have repeatedly said they are working hard to certify the Falcon 9 in time to compete for a mission for the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates the nation’s spy satellites. Proposals for that launch were due Aug. 14.

It is unclear if earning certification by Dec. 1, which Hyten described as an “aggressive schedule,” would make SpaceX eligible to win that contract.

In the last week, the Air Force has added eight more employees to focus exclusively on certification, bringing the service’s total to 151, Hyten said. Air Force officials in May said about 100 workers were working on certification at a cost of about $60 million.

Hyten also said SpaceX’s lawsuit “doesn’t affect my relationship with SpaceX at all. It does not bother me. If you feel you’ve been wronged, you have the ability to go to court and do that. I don’t actually think about it very much.”

That contrasts with a remark made in May by Hyten’s predecessor, Air Force Gen. William Shelton, who said, “Generally, the person you do business with you don’t sue.” Shelton’s comment drew a rebuke from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during a July 16 hearing.