SpaceX, USAF Eye Mid-2015 For Falcon 9 Full Certification

October 4, 2013 – 09:43 am

The U.S. Air Force and (SpaceX) are now targeting midyear for full certification of the launch upstart’s Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket to loft Pentagon payloads into orbit.

Officials had hoped to achieve this goal by the end of last year, and a service statement says "substantial progress" has been made. But 20% of the tasks associated with the certification still remain, according to an Air Force statement.

"In a relatively short period of time, SpaceX has made historic progress as a launch provider and helped prove how effective competition can be in the civil space industry – all while bringing commercial space launches back to the United States, " said Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC). "This progress also includes establishing itself as a launch provider and continuing to work with the Air Force to fully demonstrate its ability to comply with National Security Space standards for interface with and delivery of our nation’s most critical payloads to multiple orbits. Although certification was not awarded as of the end of December, we recognize SpaceX for its thorough efforts in moving toward an aggressive certification goal, and we will continue to vigorously pursue that certification milestone … We expect to certify SpaceX no later than midyear, as we remain very optimistic since SpaceX continues to demonstrate the innate ability to innovate and quickly respond to open items."

At issue for the cumbersome certification process is ensuring that SpaceX – a relatively new company employing new techniques and processes in line with commercial launch needs – can adhere to the standards and processes established by the Pentagon over decades of launch experience and honed in the 1990s after a series of dazzling and costly launch failures. SpaceX is the first company to undergo the new certification process with the goal of garnering work for its Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket. Competitor could follow in its footsteps with its Antares rocket.

An Air Force spokesman declined to identify what specific tasks remain for the certification because the data is proprietary. Last year, SpaceX completed the three launches required, but Air Force officials said they were still assessing the engineering and manufacturing data. SpaceX did not reply to a request for comment.

"Successfully launching rockets is a very complex process … it is indeed rocket science, " said Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, who took command at SMC in June. "Going forward we will do everything we can to support the SpaceX certification process." Greaves is picking up the process pioneered by his predecessor, Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski; she is now the military deputy to the Air Force acquisition secretary.

The delay is not a surprise. Gen. John Hyten said last September that "if they are not ready on Dec. 1, we are going to have to stand up and say that, " during a speech at the 2014 Air and Space Conference hosted by the Air Force Association. At issue is balancing an eagerness to introduce competition into the U.S. military launch market – now serviced solely by United Launch Alliance with its Atlas V and Delta IV rocket families – and an unrelenting demand for flawless missions.


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