SpaceX cleared to launch U.S. national security satellites

December 23, 2016 – 03:51 pm

File photo of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch. Credit: SpaceXThe U.S. Air Force announced Tuesday that SpaceX is now eligible to compete for launches of U.S. national security satellites, closing a tumultuous chapter in the U.S. rocket industry and ending the Pentagon’s sole reliance on United Launch Alliance to haul military payloads into orbit.

The Air Force’s certification of the Falcon 9 rocket gives SpaceX access to approximately one-third of the U.S. national security launch market forecast to be worth $70 billion through 2030, according to an estimate by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The Falcon 9 can lift the Air Force’s GPS navigation satellites, missile warning platforms, weather satellites, and some of the National Reconnaissance Office’s orbiting spy payloads.

SpaceX’s more powerful Falcon Heavy rocket, which is set to fly its first test mission as soon as this year, is required to send up the military’s heavier satellites. The Falcon Heavy will be subjected to its own certification reviews after achieving three successful flights.

“This is a very important milestone for the Air Force and the Department of Defense, ” said Deborah James, secretary of the Air Force. “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.”

Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, approved the certification of the Falcon 9 rocket, according to an Air Force press release.

ULA’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets have shared responsibility for launching the most critical U.S. military and intelligence spacecraft for a decade, since the retirement of Lockheed Martin’s Titan 4 rocket.

Lockheed Martin and Boeing developed the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 boosters in the late 1990s and early 2000s under the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Lockheed Martin and Boeing merged their rocket divisions to form ULA in 2006.

The Pentagon endorsed the merger, saying it was required to ensure the survival of two launch vehicles capable of launching Defense Department payloads after the U.S. share of the global commercial launch market withered. The military is required by law to maintain two rockets to send up satellites in case one launcher is grounded due to a failure or another serious problem.


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