SpaceX Closing in on Certification for Military Launches

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WASHINGTON — Rocket maker Space Exploration Technologies Corp. is expected to begin a series of review boards with the U.S. government’s chief engineer the week of Oct. 27 as it enters the “final phase” of  its quest to earn the Air Force certification necessary to launch national security missions, a service spokeswoman said.

The Air Force requires SpaceX — and any other so-called new entrants in the national security launch marketplace — to provide data from three successful launches for analysis and to pass 19 engineering review boards, among other tasks, to earn certification.

Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX, currently the most serious challenger to United Launch Alliance’s effective monopoly in the market, has completed those three launches submitted the required data.

The last of the engineering review boards was completed in October, Alicia Garges, a spokeswoman for the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, said in an Oct. 24 email.

“The New Entrant Certification Process for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle is into its final phases, including close out of open items and parallel audits/analysis and reviews,” Garges wrote. “The Air Force is working closely with SpaceX to achieve certification as soon as possible. This includes working closely with SpaceX to work to streamline the certification process and resolve issues when they arise.”

In a speech at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference here in September, Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, said the service was aiming for a December deadline. Garges said the Air Force is still shooting for December.

Air Force officials have repeatedly said they are working hard to certify the Falcon 9 in time to allow SpaceX to compete for a mission for the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates the nation’s spy satellites. More than 150 Air Force employees have been assigned to the certification efforts.

Proposals for the NRO launch were due Aug. 14. It is unclear if earning certification in December would make SpaceX eligible to win that contract.

As part of its plan to reduce its satellite launching costs while mollifying critics of ULA’s 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 in April.

Air Force officials are expected to decide by Nov. 1 whether to enter mediation with SpaceX in an attempt to resolve the lawsuit, sources said. Nearly every filing in the case has been under seal for months. The judge overseeing the case has instructed the Air Force, SpaceX and ULA not to discuss the case with the media.