In a move that could shake up the spaceflight business, Hawthorne rocket company SpaceX has passed a key milestone toward its goal to launch the U.S. government's most sophisticated national security satellites.
The upstart firm said Friday that 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 represents a big step in SpaceX's efforts to break the grip entrenched aerospace giants have had on the nation's space program.
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 later this year.
The groundwork is now in place for SpaceX to vie for one of the world's most lucrative space programs, called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle. Previously, the Air Force had only one company that was certified for missions to launch the military's most precious satellites into orbit.
For eight years, 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.
All of the alliance's 71 launches for the Pentagon have been successful.
SpaceX has logged nine launches with the Falcon 9. The company is also building a massive new rocket, called Falcon Heavy, capable of lifting the government's bulkier satellites. It too would have to be approved by the Air Force.
But even if SpaceX fulfilled all of the government's requirements, there is no guarantee that the company would win the Air Force contracts.
"Despite the certification, I'm sure there are some people in the Air Force who are worried about the reliability of the Falcon 9 going forward," said Loren Thompson, a SpaceX critic and aerospace policy analyst for the Lexington Institute in Virginia. "So, SpaceX is not a shoo-in to win the next competition for military launch services."
In recent months, however, the arrangement between the military and United Launch Alliance has been embroiled in controversy on Capitol Hill over escalating costs and allegations of a cozy relationship. A bipartisan group of seven senators also wrote to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asking for more scrutiny.
Boeing and Lockheed formed the alliance in 2006, saying market demand could not sustain two competitors.
The controversy over the sole-source contract came to a head in April when SpaceX, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., filed a bid protest in U.S. Federal Claims Court to challenge the Air Force's contract with United Launch Alliance. The U.S. government has recently filed a motion to dismiss the suit.
At issue is a long-term contract, which guaranteed the Air Force's purchase of 36 rocket boosters from United Launch Alliance to be used in national security launches without the possibility of competition. The Air Force said the bulk-buy strategy would save the service $4.4 billion.
SpaceX called it an "egregious" contract that will "needlessly cost taxpayers billions of dollars."
In March, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk testified before Congress seeking the right to bid for the contract.
"There should be no more sole-sourcing under this program when competition is an option," Musk said.
SpaceX has already changed the way NASA conducts spaceflight. The company now runs regular cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station. It became the first private company to do so, a year after the space shuttle fleet was retired in 2011.
The company, which also launches telecommunications satellites, has always wanted to break into the lucrative national security business.
The Government Accountability Office said the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program had increased by $28.1 billion to $64 billion over the last fiscal year. It also said the launch program could be worth as much as $70 billion through 2030.
In 2012, Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall wrote a memo advising the Air Force to introduce competition and identify "up to 14 missions that should be competed as early as 2015."
But the Air Force's recent budget proposal offered no plans for competition next fiscal year, which starts in October. It also slashed from 14 to seven the number of missions from 2015 to 2017. That was the catalyst for the Senate letter, which included the signatures of Democratic California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.
The Air Force responded by saying it favors more competition — but cut the number of launches, saying there was no need to put additional satellites into orbit.
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