Falcon 9 Upgrade
An upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, carrying 11 Orbcomm satellites. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — SpaceX’s historic first-stage landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida following a successful launch Dec. 21 won accolades throughout the space community, and the U.S. Defense Department was no exception.

In a Dec. 23 email to SpaceNews, Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, commander of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, congratulated SpaceX on the successful mission of the Falcon 9 Upgrade.

“Advancements and developments such as those demonstrated by the Falcon 9 Upgrade provide the opportunity to assure our nation’s access to space with improved resiliency,” Greaves said.

Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves
Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base. Credit: U.S. Air Force

The Air Force has long been working closely with Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX given the likelihood that the company will be launching U.S. military satellites starting in the next couple of years. SpaceX has emerged as a major challenger to incumbent U.S. government launch services provider United Launch Alliance, which has had the market to itself since 2006.

During a breakfast here in July, Greaves said SpaceX helped equip SMC to display the same launch screens and data that company officials see at mission control.

When a Falcon 9 carrying supplies for the International Space Station exploded June 28, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell began sending Greaves updates on what might have happened within 10 minutes. In other words, Greaves said, the Air Force followed SpaceX’s failure investigation “extremely closely” from the start.

The mishap occurred just weeks after the Air Force initially certified Falcon 9 to launch military payloads. The return to flight took place less than two months after bids were due for the launch of an Air Force GPS 3 satellite in 2018.

Denver-based ULA declined to bid for the mission, effectively conceding what was to be the Air Force’s first competitively awarded launch contract in nearly a decade to SpaceX.


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.