Air Force certified Falcon Heavy for national security launch but more work needed to meet required orbits
WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon Heavy on June 25 launched the Defense Department’s Space Test Program-2 mission with 24 satellites.
Although STP-2 was a U.S.government-funded space launch managed by the Air Force, it was not a National Security Space Launch mission. The NSSL program launches the nation’s most valuable and least risk-tolerant satellites for the military and the intelligence community.
Following its successful STP-2 launch, there was some confusion as to whether Falcon Heavy is fully certified to fly satellites in the NSSL program.
According to the Air Force, the answer is yes, but not completely.
“I certified them to compete last year,” Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, told SpaceNews in an interview last week.
But that was only the first step. “One of the requirements behind certification is to fly three missions,” Thompson said. The STP-2 launch was Falcon Heavy’s third. It flew its first demonstration mission in February 2018, followed by Arabsat 6A in April 2019.
“They have completed that. They are fully certified now,” said Thompson. “But that doesn’t mean the work on the Falcon Heavy stops.”
What that means is that Falcon Heavy has been certified “for certain orbits,” said Thompson. “It’s not certified for all of our most stressing national security space orbits,” he said. “We continue to work with SpaceX to mature their design and I think that’s going well.”
Launch vehicle systems are certified for specific mass and orbit combinations. A spokesman for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center said the Falcon Heavy is certified for two Phase 1A reference orbits.
The two reference orbits are for the missions that Falcon Heavy was awarded by the Air Force under Phase 1A of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, which has been renamed National Security Space Launch.
In June 2018 the Air Force awarded SpaceX a $130 million contract for the launch of the Air Force Space Command-52 (AFSPC-52) satellite aboard Falcon Heavy. In February the Air Force selected the Falcon Heavy for the AFSPC-44 mission as part of a $297 million contract that also includes two Falcon 9 launches for National Reconnaissance Office satellites NROL-85 and NROL-87.
AFSPC-52 and AFSPC-44 are scheduled to be launched in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
The next Air Force launch procurement competition will be Phase 2 of the NSSL program. To win a Phase 2 contract, bidders have to show they can reach nine reference orbits and lift a wide range of payload sizes. When SpaceX announced it was submitting a proposal for Phase 2, the company’s president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement SpaceX will offer “existing, certified and proven launch systems capable of carrying out the full spectrum of national security space launch missions and requirements.”
SpaceX to win a Phase 2 contract would have to demonstrate that with the single-core Falcon 9 and the three-core Falcon Heavy it can meet all the mass/orbit combinations required by the Air Force. Falcon 9 was certified in May 2015 and successfully flew its first NSSL mission in December.
In Phase 2, the Air Force will select two launch providers from a field of four competitors that includes United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman. ULA, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman are developing new vehicles for the Phase 2 competition and all will have to go through the certification process.
“One of the key tenets of the Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement is two launch systems that can meet our entire National Security Space manifest,” the Air Force spokesman told SpaceNews in a statement. “We continue to work with SpaceX as they mature their design to meet all NSS requirements. Should SpaceX wish to pursue certification for additional reference orbits for the Falcon Heavy, they may request to do so.”