For the first time in a decade, the Air Force has opened up a rocket competition to launch the U.S. government's most sophisticated national security satellites.
The Air Force released a request for proposal on Tuesday to companies that want to compete for a national security mission set to blast off in 2016.
The announcement allows Hawthorne rocket maker SpaceX to vie for one of the world's most lucrative space programs. The upstart firm and its chief executive, Elon Musk, have been publicly fighting all year to compete for military contracts.
For years, the Air Force had only one company that carried out missions to launch the nation's most precious satellites into orbit under a program called the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle.
The Pentagon has paid Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. — operating jointly as United Launch Alliance — to launch the government's pricey spy satellites without seeking competitive bids. Some of the satellites cost more than $1 billion and take years to build.
Last week, though, SpaceX passed a key milestone when the Air Force certified its Falcon 9 rocket after poring over data from three of the rocket's successful flights that took place over the last year.
The certification represented a big step in SpaceX's efforts to break the grip entrenched aerospace giants have had on the nation's space program.
"Competition among certified launch providers will encourage innovation and continued cost savings, while ensuring the Air Force will continue its focus on mission success," Air Force Capt. Erika Yepsen said in a statement.
SpaceX has more requirements to meet before it can formally compete for the multibillion-dollar contracts, but qualifying the three launches for government contracts was considered a major hurdle. It expects to satisfy the remaining requirements for the program, dubbed EELV, this year.
"If allowed to compete for EELV business, SpaceX will provide the nation with efficient and highly reliable launch services," company spokesman John Taylor said in a statement.
The Air Force said it believes completing all requirements to compete for the contracts is an "extremely aggressive schedule," but has invested more than $60 million and 100 personnel to support that goal.
SpaceX has logged just nine launches with the Falcon 9. All of United Launch Alliance's 71 launches for the Pentagon have been successful, which is critical because the satellites that the rockets carry are extremely valuable.
"Based on current public information about the capabilities needed to launch the Air Force's satellites, United Launch Alliance is well positioned to compete for all missions as the only certified government launch provider that meets all of the unique EELV requirements," the company said in a statement.
"Should new entrants become certified, ULA looks forward to demonstrating its commitment to be the safest, most reliable, and most cost-effective provider."