Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is now one more step closer to earning full certification of its Falcon-9 v1.1 rocket to launch high-priority government payloads, as the U.S. Air Force has now officially certified the company’s launcher as having flown three successful consecutive flights. The three-flight certification now paves the way for SpaceX to complete the full certification process by end of 2014 to begin competing for award of those big-money government launch contracts starting in 2015.
Air Force certification is a major milestone (and a mandatory prerequisite) in the certification process for any company seeking to win business from the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) Program. Aerospace giant United Launch Alliance (ULA) is currently the only launch provider certified to deliver government missions to orbit, and therefore has a monopoly over the industry.
The current certification requirements, agreed to by both the Air Force and SpaceX via a June 2013 cooperative research and development agreement, only covers certifying the company’s Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket. However, both the Air Force and SpaceX intend to work together to certify the still-in-development (and therefore unproven) mammoth Falcon Heavy rocket eventually as well, as it will be capable of launching the government’s largest (and most expensive) payloads such as the classified NRO spy satellites that currently fly atop ULA’s Atlas-V and Delta-IV Heavy launchers.
SpaceX is already qualified with the Air Force to compete for those national security DOD launch contracts, but the company must also be certified by the Air Force before any contract will actually be awarded, and in order to qualify for certification SpaceX had to demonstrate its Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket as having flown three successful flights—two of which must have been flown consecutively.
SpaceX went one step further and performed three consecutive, successful flights, the first of which was flown from Vandenburg AFB in California for the launch of CASSIOPE on Sep. 29, 2013. The second qualifying flight was carried out from Cape Canaveral for the launch of SES-8 on Dec. 3, 2014, and the third required flight was launched to deliver Thaicom-6 to orbit on Jan. 6, 2014.
Although it has now been six months since the last qualifying flight, and 10 months since the first, the certification process criteria is such that the Air Force needed time to thoroughly evaluate the vehicle’s design, reliability, process maturity, and safety systems—a process which the Air Force previously stated would take three months per launch. The Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), which oversees procurement of satellites and rockets for the Air Force, also had to evaluate SpaceX’s Falcon-9 v1.1 manufacturing and operations, systems engineering, risk management, and launch facilities before certifying the launcher as having conducted three successful flights.
It’s important to note that earning certification to compete for DOD launch contracts will not guarantee the Air Force will award any to SpaceX, but rather that they (or any other qualified launcher) will be eligible to compete in the first place. However, if SpaceX leader Elon Musk’s claims of enormous cost-savings hold true, then the U.S. government would find it hard to ignore the dramatic difference in price when compared to costs for ULA to provide the same services.
Musk and SpaceX claim they can save the government, and U.S. tax payers, a whopping $300 million—per launch—a cost savings which, in many cases, would pay for both the launch and satellite combined, according to Musk.
“The Air Force and other agencies are simply paying too high a price for launch, and prices have risen to unsustainable levels,” said Musk at a hearing on National Security Space Launch Programs before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense last March. “SpaceX was founded to make radical improvements to space transport technology, with particular regard to reliability, safety and affordability. If you took something like a GPS satellite, which is about $140 million, you could actually have a free satellite with our launch, because our launch plus the satellite would cost less than just their (ULA’s) launch – which is an enormous difference. Had SpaceX been awarded the missions ULA received under its recent non-competed 36 core block buy we would have saved the tax payers $11.6 billion dollars.”
So far in 2014 SpaceX has launched twice, both successfully, for both customers Thaicom LLC and NASA, and the company is currently preparing to launch the OG2 mission for customer Orbcomm atop their Falcon-9 v1.1 rocket from Cape Canaveral as soon as tomorrow morning (Monday, July 14). The mission has been delayed several times already, for everything from bad weather to technical issues on both the payload and rocket.
ULA, on the other hand, has launched seven times this year, with the most recent having flown just days ago, for both NASA and the U.S. government. All launches were successful, and on two occasions launches were carried out within a week of each other. Their eighth mission in seven months, AFSPC-4 for the U.S. Air Force, is scheduled to fly as soon as July 23.