SpaceX Falcon Heavy
A SpaceX Falcon Heavy lifts off Feb. 6 on its successful inaugural mission. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — U.S. Air Force officials will be keeping a close eye on Falcon Heavy’s upcoming Arabsat 6A commercial communications satellite launch that is scheduled to take place in early April.

The results of that mission are significant for the Air Force as SpaceX plans to recover both side-mounted boosters and refurbish them so they can be reused for an Air Force launch a few weeks later.

The Arabsat 6A launch — the first by Falcon Heavy since the rocket debuted in February 2018 — also would help advance the certification of the vehicle for national security missions, which the Air Force has not yet completed.

Before, during and after the Arabsat launch, “we will take an up-close and personal look at how they do things,” said Randy Kendall, vice president of launch program operations at the Aerospace Corp. The company advises and supports the Air Force on all aspects of national security launch, including the certification of new-entrant vehicles.

The observations and data from the Arabsat mission could determine how soon the Air Force will be ready to certify reused boosters for national security missions, Kendall told SpaceNews. “This will further refine our strategy for the mission assurance activities that we have to conduct to get comfortable with reused boosters,” he said. “Reusability is definitely coming soon. We’re getting close.”

Approximately two months after launching Arabsat 6A from launch pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, SpaceX is scheduled to fly an Air Force Space Test Program rideshare mission known as STP-2. For this flight, Falcon Heavy will be powered by a new center core and the two refurbished Falcon 9 Block 5 side boosters from the Arabsat mission. The date of the STP-2 launch has not been firmed up yet.

The STP-2 mission originally was awarded to SpaceX in 2012 for a 2015 launch, but it was delayed by rocket development issues. The launch now comes at a pivotal time for the Air Force as it moves closer to certifying reusable rockets. Congress last year directed the Air Force to change the name of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program to National Security Space Launch effective March 1 in recognition that the military will no longer fly only expendable launch vehicles.

But the process of certifying reused hardware is laborious as the Air Force wants to minimize risk, Kendall said. “We’re helping the government create the foundation for certifying vehicles for reuse. But we’re not ready to fly a reused vehicle yet for NSSL launches.” STP-2, he said, “will be the first trial to look at how SpaceX processes, refurbishes and re-flies vehicles.”

The Falcon Heavy will carry STP-2 as the primary payload and will deliver secondary payloads from an ESPA ring.

Kendall said the STP-2 mission is a “great opportunity for the Air Force to take a little risk where it doesn’t affect the high-value national security satellites but still allows them to learn a lot, and apply it.” STP satellites are used for experiments and prototyping of technologies.

Although the Air Force has not set a deadline for when it will certify previously flown hardware for NSSL missions, Kendall said it should not be long. One of the industry competitors entering the national security market, Blue Origin, does not offer expendable vehicles. “Their whole concept is built around recovering boosters,” said Kendall. “They will fly each of their core stages 12 times. They are committed to reusability,” he added. “And if they win a Launch Service Procurement award, we’d be committed to reusability.”

Falcon Heavy certification

After the inaugural flight of the Falcon Heavy, the Air Force certified the vehicle as eligible to compete for future NSSL contract awards. But Falcon Heavy has yet to complete the so-called “nonrecurring design certification,” Kendall said.

He explained the Air Force has a two-step process for new entrants. A new vehicle doesn’t have to complete the full certification plan to be eligible to compete for contract awards. In the case of Falcon Heavy, it made it past the first phase but its final design certification is not done yet.

Before Falcon Heavy can launch its first NSSL mission, it has to get through the complete nonrecurring design validation, which will include two more launches, Kendall said. “Arabsat and STP-2 are going to serve as two final milestones to complete the certification plan,” he said. The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center and Aerospace “still have some work remaining for the complete design certification.”

Kendall pointed out that when the Air Force first rolled out the new entrant certification guide in 2011, it required a vehicle to get through the complete design validation before it could be awarded a contract. SpaceX was moving through the certification process in 2014 while it was bidding for launches under the EELV program. A longer-than-expected certification process put SpaceX at risk of being kept out of the competition, which set off an independent review directed by the Secretary of the Air Force. The review concluded that the bar was too high for new entrants with no government funding. “You needed some easier way to on-ramp them,” said Kendall. “So they created a two-step process.”

First, a vehicle is certified to be eligible to compete. That requires submitting a certification plan and the government stating it has confidence that the company can execute that plan. But a full design certification is required before a vehicle can launch national security payloads. In the case of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, it made it past the first step in 2015 and won EELV contracts for GPS satellite launches. Kendall noted that from that time until SpaceX’s first EELV launch occurred in December 2018, “we were still doing work completing the final design certification for that Falcon 9 rocket.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...