WASHINGTON — Rocket maker SpaceX expects to earn certification from the U.S. Air Force to launch national security missions by the end of the year, but did not meet an ambitious Dec. 1 deadline suggested by the service’s top space officer, the Air Force’s top space official said.
In September Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, said that under an aggressive schedule, SpaceX could earn certification for its Falcon 9 rocket by Dec. 1. That date passed and the service now is expected to meet with SpaceX in the coming weeks to iron out final details. “I feel very confident they’re going to be certified,” Hyten said Dec. 5.
Air Force officials have repeatedly said they want 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 and has devoted more than 150 employees to that effort. Bids for the NRO launch were due in August.
“SpaceX is working hand in hand with its partners at the Air Force to complete the certification process as soon as possible, with the goal of being completed before the end of the year,” John Taylor, a SpaceX spokesman, said.
As part of its plan to reduce its satellite launching costs and mollify critics of United Launch Alliance’s current monopoly in the national security launch market, 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 $11 billion, sole-source contract in a lawsuit filed in federal court in April.
SpaceX already has completed three launches, submitted the required data and finished a series of 19 engineering review boards as part of the certification process, Air Force officials have said.