It could be a 'long time' before U.S. launches spy satellites on a reusable rocket

The commercial satellite market might be ready for a reusable rocket, but the U.S. government is taking a more cautious approach.

The director of launch enterprise for the U.S. Air Force Space Command's Space and Missile Systems Center said Tuesday that it could be a "long time" before the government agrees to use a reusable rocket to blast national security payloads into orbit.

"We do require very high design margins," said Claire Leon at a panel on new strategies and technology for the launch market at the Space Tech Expo in Pasadena. "I think we have a long way to go."

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For years, a joint venture of Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. had a monopoly on the lucrative national security satellite launch market. But last year, entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX received approval from the Air Force to compete for Pentagon contracts, pitting the Hawthorne firm against United Launch Alliance.

In April, the Air Force announced that SpaceX had won an $82.7-million contract to launch a government GPS satellite for the Air Force. ULA did not bid for the contract, saying at the time that it did not have the "accounting systems in place to make a compliant bid."

A former executive of the firm later said in a speech at the University of Colorado in Boulder that the venture could not compete with SpaceX on launch costs.

SpaceX has listed the starting price for its Falcon 9 rocket at $62 million. Brett Tobey, who resigned after the speech, said that on ULA's "best day" the venture would bid at about $125 million.

If SpaceX is able to routinely reuse its rockets -- it has landed Falcon 9 first stages back on land once and twice on a drone ship at sea -- it would cut its costs even more.

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In an interview after the panel, Leon said the government would want to see a track record of the reusable rocket's success with commercial customers. There's also a rigorous analysis test and qualification process that the reusable rocket would have to pass, she said.

SpaceX's next launch is set for Thursday and the company will again try to land its rocket booster on the sea platform.

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samantha.masunaga@latimes.com

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