Today it was announced by Lt. Gen Samuel Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space, that Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), the privately-held aerospace company that forced United Launch Alliance (ULA) to develop a new rocket to stay competitive, is now certified to use its Falcon-9 rocket to launch sensitive national security space missions, such as U.S. military satellites or the X-37B which launched just days ago.
SpaceX is now one of two vendors certified to fly these kinds of missions; the other vendor, ULA, has been the sole provider to fly military missions since its creation in 2006. Gen. Greaves remarked: “The SpaceX and SMC teams have worked hard to achieve certification … We’re also maintaining our spaceflight worthiness process supporting the National Security Space missions. Our intent is to promote the viability of multiple EELV-class [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle-class] launch providers as soon as feasible.”
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James stated: “This is a very important milestone for the Air Force and the Department of Defense [DoD]. SpaceX’s emergence as a viable commercial launch provider provides the opportunity to compete launch services for the first time in almost a decade. Ultimately, leveraging of the commercial space market drives down cost to the American taxpayer and improves our military’s resiliency.” SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk added: “This is an important step toward bringing competition to National Security Space launch. We thank the Air Force for its confidence in us, and look forward to serving it well.”
A U.S. Air Force news article stated the process undertaken to make Department of Defense launches competitive again: “This milestone is the culmination of a significant two-year effort on the part of the Air Force and SpaceX to execute the certification process, and reintroduce competition into the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. The Air Force invested more than $60 million and 150 people in the certification effort which encompassed 125 certification criteria, including more than 2,800 discreet tasks, three certification flight demonstrations, verifying 160 payload interface requirements, 21 major subsystem reviews and 700 audits in order to establish the technical baseline from which the Air Force will make future flight worthiness determinations for launch.”
This effort reached a fever pitch last year as SpaceX’s Musk filed a lawsuit in order to be able to compete for military launches. A previous AmericaSpace article written by Mike Killian in April 2014 stated: “ … On Friday, April 25, Musk announced that his Hawthorne, Calif.-based aerospace company is filing suit in the Court of Federal Claims against the U.S. Air Force’s recent ‘bulk buy’ purchase with ULA. The purchase totals nearly $3 billion for 14 out of 36 required rocket cores from ULA on a sole-source basis, while an additional 14 missions would be awarded competitively (seven of those missions are no longer up for grabs). Musk, however, has not been shy in publicly protesting the fact that SpaceX cannot yet compete against ULA for those contracts, and now it appears he has officially declared war on ULA’s monopoly.”
In addition, at that time Musk discussed ULA’s use of Russian-built RD-180 engines, used by its Atlas V launch vehicle, and benefits of keeping launch technologies stateside: “Our Falcon launch vehicles are truly made in America, designed in California and Texas, with key suppliers spread across the country, and we launch from either Vandenburg Air Force Base or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This stands in stark contrast to the ULA’s most frequently flown vehicle, the Atlas-V, which uses a Russian main engine and where approximately half the airframe is manufactured overseas. In light of Russia’s de facto annexation of the Ukraine’s Crimea region and the formal severing of military ties, the Atlas V cannot possibly be described as providing ‘assured access to space’ for our nation when supply of the main engine depends on President [Vladimir] Putin’s permission. Given this development, it would seem prudent to reconsider whether the 36 core uncompeted, sole source award to ULA is truly in the best interests of the people of the United States.”
In June 2014, the U.S. government requested to dismiss this lawsuit. Another AmericaSpace article written by Killian discussed the factors leading to the dismissal request, including the fact that, at the time, SpaceX was not yet able to be certified. In January this year, SpaceX stated that it was dismissing its claims and would work collaboratively with the Air Force in an effort to improve the EELV Program’s competitive landscape.
By July 2014, SpaceX had made great strides in the effort to compete for DoD launches, and had already conducted three consecutive, successful flights, as requested for certification. The first of which was flown from Vandenburg AFB in California for the launch of CASSIOPE on Sept. 29, 2013. The second qualifying flight was carried out from Cape Canaveral for the launch of SES-8 on Dec. 3, 2013, and the third required flight was launched to deliver Thaicom-6 to orbit on Jan. 6, 2014.
However, even though it had already been six months since the last qualifying flight, and 10 months since the first, the certification process criteria was 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, 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.
The Air Force stated that SpaceX will first have an opportunity to compete for military launches in June, as it will release a Request for Proposal (RFP) for GPS Block III launch services. This new generation of GPS satellites, to be used for military and civilian purposes, is currently being developed by Lockheed Martin. Recently, the first Block III GPS satellite was fully integrated at the company’s Denver, Colo., manufacturing facility, and will undergo further testing this summer. This satellite is being prepared for a projected 2017 launch. The Air Force has stated that it intends to purchase up to 32 Block III GPS satellites. Time will tell as to what surprises this competitiveness will bring for both SpaceX and ULA.
This article was authored by Emily Carney and Mike Killian.