COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The chief executive of startup launch services provider SpaceX on April 12 said entering into direct competition with today’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets for U.S. Air Force business is the company’s second-highest priority after developing a cargo service to the international space station.

Briefing reporters at the National Space Symposium here, Elon Musk said he expected his next Falcon 9 flight to the space station, carrying the company’s Dragon cargo capsule on its inaugural flight to the orbital complex, is likely to occur in September or October.

Work on Dragon’s proximity operations and berthing systems continues, Musk said, as does development of additional redundancies — backup safety systems — on the capsule’s avionics, and on its solar panels. In addition, a NASA safety review essential to authorize Dragon’s arrival at the space station has yet to be completed.

Musk said the Falcon 9 rocket itself is ready to go and should be shipped to the Cape Canaveral launch site in June or July. “September or October is the likely launch date,” said Musk, whose Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., is positioning itself as a low-cost alternative to the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 vehicles the Air Force now uses almost exclusively.

“We want SpaceX to fully compete with EELV,” Musk said, referring to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program under which the Air Force developed the Atlas and Delta rockets.

“I am a little disappointed” with the Air Force, Musk said. “It is now practically the sole holdout of all the world’s agencies, the sole entity” that has not purchased a Falcon 9 rocket. NASA has purchased multiple Falcon 9’s, with the contracts structured in stages that advance based on the vehicle’s success.

A U.S. Air Force official said the service in all likelihood would purchase SpaceX’s new Falcon 9 Heavy rocket, with the contract contingent on the vehicle flying successfully at least twice before it is entrusted with an Air Force satellite.

“That is about what we are hearing,” Musk said. “But I think now we need to see action, not words.”

SpaceX had scheduled two or three Falcon 9 launches for 2011, with launch rates ramping up to five or six in 2012, growing to 12 per year by 2014. Musk said the company’s goal is to launch 20 times per year with Falcon 9, a rate that would permit the company to further reduce per-launch charges.

Musk said SpaceX will fund development of its Falcon 9 Heavy vehicle with its own resources and does not need to go to the public equity markets with an initial public offering of stock to undertake what he acknowledged will be a significant capital investment. He declined to say what SpaceX forecasts as the development costs of Falcon 9, which would compete not only with Atlas 5 and Delta 4 but also with the Russian Proton and European Ariane 5 rockets on the commercial market.

Musk said SpaceX has placed its smaller Falcon 1 rocket on “hiatus” status as it focuses its resources on its upcoming mission to the space station and to initial development of the Falcon 9 Heavy.

He conceded that some Falcon 1 customers have complained, but that their concerns have been eased as they are told that SpaceX could reduce the previously negotiated launch cost. Falcon 1 satellite customers will be moved to Falcon 9, where some will be piggyback payloads on launches whose main customer would be SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.

Musk said the Falcon 9 Heavy would be only half as expensive as Russia’s Proton, when measured in the cost of placing a given satellite into orbit.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, in a separate presentation here April 12, said the agency’s policy of pushing rocket development work onto the private sector will reach maximum benefit only if other customers also purchase the vehicles developed initially with NASA funding.

Referring specifically to SpaceX, Garver said a conventional NASA procurement of a Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket would cost nearly $4.5 billion according to a NASA-U.S. Air Force cost study that includes the vehicle’s first flight. Outsourcing development to SpaceX, she said, would cut that figure by 60 percent, but only if other customers purchase the vehicle, thus permitting scale economies to reach maximum effect.



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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.