LONG BEACH, Calif. — Despite two failures in a little more than one year, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 vehicle is not in immediate danger of losing its Air Force certification, a top Defense Department official said Sept. 13.
Talking with reporters during the AIAA Space 2016 conference here, Winston Beauchamp, deputy under secretary of the Air Force for space, said the Air Force was participating in the investigation of the pad explosion Sept. 1 that destroyed a Falcon 9 and its commercial satellite payload, postponing future launches of the vehicle for at least several months.
“The SpaceX Falcon 9 capability remains certified for national security launches,” he said. “We are, of course, going to follow very closely the investigation.”
SpaceX received that certification in May 2015, allowing it to compete for launches through the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. One month later, a Falcon 9 carrying a Dragon cargo spacecraft for NASA failed two minutes after liftoff, grounding the vehicle for six months.
As with that previous accident, the Air Force will not be leading the government’s participation in the investigation, but will be a part of it and be able to obtain additional information from SpaceX. “They were very open and transparent with us during the last mishap,” Beauchamp said. “We have no expectation for anything different.”
He added there were no plans to change criteria for selections in upcoming EELV launch competitions. United Launch Alliance, which declined to bid against SpaceX in the first head-to-head competition last year, has argued for a “best value” approach that gives weight to attributes beyond price, such as performance and reliability.
The explosion, besides destroying the Falcon 9, also caused “moderate” damage to its launch pad, Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Beauchamp said. “It’s definitely repairable,” he said. “I don’t have a time estimate yet for how long it will take.”
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, speaking Sept. 13 at the World Satellite Business Week Conference in Paris, said Falcon 9 could return to flight this year, although SpaceX has yet to determine what caused the Sept. 1 explosion. “We’re anticipating getting back to flight, being down for about three months, so getting back to flight November, the November timeframe,” Shotwell said.
Beauchamp, during remarks at a plenary session of the conference, reiterated his support for a policy of assured launch access. “Our policy is that we will always have at least two families of launch vehicles that can launch a full range of national security payloads to the full range of orbits that we need,” he said. “That’s in case there is a problem with one of them, as we saw with SpaceX launch that failed during tests.”
Prior to the Falcon 9 certification, that assured access was provided by ULA’s Atlas and Delta families, but Beauchamp said ULA is seeking to retire all but the heavy version of the Delta 4. “The folks at ULA have made it clear that they don’t find the Delta to be economically viable, so with the exception of the Delta 4 Heavy, which still has some unique roles in national security launch, they don’t plan to continue to use the Delta,” he told reporters.
Beauchamp said he expected demand for the Delta 4 Heavy to decline over time as technological improvements allow the use of smaller satellites, and also expected new entrants, like SpaceX’s upcoming Falcon Heavy, to seek certification to handle payloads that today can only launch on the Delta 4 Heavy.
He didn’t give a timeline he expected the Delta 4 Heavy to remain in service, although the National Reconnaissance Office awarded contracts to ULA in August for Delta 4 Heavy launches in 2020 and 2023. “We’re going to maintain that capability until we have other options,” he said.
SpaceNews Editor Brian Berger contributed to this report from Paris.