WASHINGTON – The U.S. Air Force has certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch military satellites, completing a nearly two-year process that at times strained the two parties’ relationship and establishing a competitor to United Launch Alliance in the national security marketplace.
The Air Force announced the decision May 26, clearing the way for Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX to bid on military launches beginning this year with one of the service’s next-generation GPS 3 positioning, navigation and timing satellites.
“This is a very important milestone for the Air Force and the Department of Defense, ” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in the press release. “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.”
Denver-based ULA has had the U.S. national security launch market all to itself since it was created in 2006 through the merger of the rocket-making operations of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which previously were bitter rivals in this industry sector.
Air Force officials originally expected SpaceX to earn certification by the end of 2014, but the service announced in January that about 20 percent of the work remained. The delay led the Air Force to re-evaluate its certification process.
The process entailed a thorough Air Force review of three successful Falcon 9 launches, the last of which took place in early 2014. Among the problems that delayed certification as identified in a March report by an independent panel was SpaceX’s expectation that its successful track record was enough to win certification and the Air Force’s push for design changes to the Falcon 9.
According to industry sources, SpaceX’s practice of tweaking certain parameters of the rocket in between launches also was a factor.
“This is an important step toward bringing competition to National Security Space launch, ” Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder chief executive, said in the May 26 release. “We thank the Air Force for its confidence in us and look forward to serving it well.”
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