WASHINGTON — The June 28 explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket just two minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, undercuts the hard-charging company just as it appeared ready to grab a share of the lucrative U.S. military launch market.

Up until the failure, which destroyed a capsule filled with supplies for the International Space Station, Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX had compiled a nearly flawless track record over 18 Falcon 9 missions for government and commercial customers. In June, after a sometimes contentious process that lasted nearly two years, the Air Force certified the Falcon 9 to launch national security satellites.

Meanwhile, United Launch Alliance, which has had the military market all to itself since 2006, faces questions about the future availability of its workhorse Atlas 5 rocket. Congress has directed the U.S. Air Force to stop using the Russian-built RD-180, that powers the main stage of the Atlas 5.

These developments have SpaceX well positioned to win hundreds of millions of dollars of Air Force launch contracts. The service plans award the first of those competitive contracts – to launch one of its next-generation GPS 3 navigation satellites-  later this year.

The failure, whose cause is under investigation, won’t help SpaceX’s cause. John Taylor, a SpaceX spokesman, declined to comment.

U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala,). Credit: C-SPAN video
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala,). Credit: C-SPAN video

“We’re lucky that all we lost yesterday is supplies,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said in a June 29 email to SpaceNews. “It could have been the lives of astronauts or a multi-billion national security payload that our warfighters rely on.

“We’ve been reminded of the importance of Assured Access to Space.  We can’t allow the United States to be put into a position where it has only one means of launching national security payloads, because it can be lost in a moment.”

Despite having been a monopoly, Denver-based ULA fulfilled the assured access requirement for all but the heaviest payloads by virtue of having two vehicles, the Atlas 5 and Delta 4. But the company is phasing out all but the largest variant of Delta 4 — the Air Force has no alternative for launching some of its most critical national security satellites — because the vehicle is too expensive.

Once that happens, the Air Force will have assured access through the combination of the Falcon 9 and Atlas 5, which ULA plans to replace after 2020 with a new rocket called Vulcan. To stay competitive while developing Vulcan, ULA is counting on continued access to the RD-180. The company says it needs 14 of the Russian-made engines to stay in business until Vulcan, to be powered by a U.S.-made engine, is ready. The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 grants that number, but the Senate version allows only nine.

RD-180 engines. Credit: ULA

Air Force officials have expressed concern that the Senate version of the bill could effectively knock Atlas 5 out of the national security market, leaving the Air Force with only one rocket at its disposal: Falcon 9. The failure would appear to lend strength to those concerns.

Just two days before the Falcon 9 exploded, assured access was the focus of a hearing of the House strategic forces subcommittee that included testimony from Air Force and industry witnesses.

“With the Nation’s deep reliance on space capabilities, assured access to space remains one of our highest priorities,” Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, said in written testimony. “It is essential we sustain a reliable capability to deliver national security satellites to space.”

In a statement to SpaceNews provided June 29, the Air Force said “it’s too early to assess any impact that the Space X launch failure has on future DoD launch missions.  The Department is firmly committed to smoothly transitioning our launch enterprise with a continued strong focus on maintaining assured access to space for National Security Space missions.”

In the week before the Falcon 9 failure, House and Senate leaders began negotiating differences between the House and Senate version of the defense authorization bill for 2016. Congressional sources have said for months that a group known as the Big Four, the chairmen and ranking members, of the House and Senate armed services committees, will decide how many engines to give ULA and the Air Force. Or, viewed another way, how much trust the Defense Department should put in SpaceX.

A final decision could come by the end of July.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.