CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — With the third successful flight of its Falcon 9 rocket, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) may find the door to a long-desired but recalcitrant customer cracking open — the U.S. military.
The Hawthorne, Calif.-based company nailed an ambitious test flight to send a Dragon cargo capsule to the international space station. That mission, which wrapped up successfully May 31 with Dragon’s splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, not only laid the groundwork for SpaceX to begin working off its 12-flight, $1.6 billion contract with NASA to fly space station cargo, it also demonstrated the rocket’s reliability, a condition for competing to launch U.S. national security payloads under guidelines unveiled last year.
The U.S. Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office and NASA jointly developed a strategy to certify new commercial launch vehicles in an attempt to draw competition for future launch contracts.
“The new entrant criteria did say three launches are required before certification can happen for national security payloads,” SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Grantham told Space News.
“It’s a lot more complicated than, ‘If you do three successful launches, you’re certified,’” Air Force spokeswoman Tracy Bunko said. “Some of the criteria depend on what technical data is available from those launchers. One thing we’ve told [interested companies] all along is that there’s no way they’re going to get completely certified using government launches. It has to be a mix of government, civilian and commercial.
“A lot of the certification is really up to them. We have criteria in place, but the onus is on the company to meet the criteria,” Bunko said.
Near term, Denver-based United Launch Alliance (ULA) will maintain its monopoly on U.S. military launch business with its Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets.
But the wall is cracking. The Air Force is expected to award a non-ULA launch services contract this year for the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), a one-time NASA Earth-monitoring satellite that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is turning into a solar observatory. A request for bids under the Air Force’s Orbital/Suborbital Program was released May 11.
“SpaceX has done very well in terms of winning customers in all markets,” SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk told Space News. “The one market that we have not yet been successful with is launching Defense Department satellites, although we’re hopeful that we’ll win one or two demonstration launches this year and then we look forward to serving the needs of the Defense Department in terms of launching satellites on the main contract as soon as possible.
“Hopefully the successive flights of Falcon 9 in a row will give them the confidence they need to open up the defense contract for competition,” he said.
“Three consecutive successful launches of the Falcon 9 rocket is an unprecedented accomplishment,” added Robert Bigelow, president of Bigelow Aerospace, which last month signed a marketing agreement for SpaceX to fly clients to its planned orbiting habitats.
“The Falcon 9 has clearly arrived and proven itself as a reliable and affordable launch system for NASA, the Air Force and commercial payloads. This rocket will create a paradigm shift within the global launch industry,” Bigelow wrote in an email to Space News.
SpaceX will have plenty of chances to build Falcon’s flight history. The rocket’s launch manifest includes more than 40 flights, including 12 for NASA. On May 29, SpaceX announced Intelsat as the first customer for the planned Falcon Heavy rocket, which is being designed to put more than twice as much payload into orbit as a Delta 4 Heavy, currently the biggest booster in the U.S. fleet.
For now, ULA isn’t worried.
“In order for a fair competition, a new entrant would need to support the full set of mission and technical requirements. In addition, entrants also will be faced with stringent government oversight, accounting and reporting requirements — none of which is part of a commercial business plan,” ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye wrote in an email to Space News.
“With 60 successful launches in just over five years, we are confident ULA’s proven system solutions will compete with any offering on level playing field. ULA also understands that the issue is not about competition, but how can our customers enable the reliable delivery of important space capabilities that protect our nation and promote science at the most cost efficient method,” Rye said.
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