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SpaceX launch certification to get review by U.S. military watchdog

SpaceX launch certification to get review by U.S. military watchdog
A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in February 2018. (Red Huber / Orlando Sentinel)

The Pentagon’s inspector general said it will begin an evaluation of the Air Force’s certification of SpaceX’s primary launch vehicles, the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, years after a legal fight led to a victory for the Elon Musk-led company.

“Our objective is to determine whether the U.S. Air Force complied with the Launch Services New Entrant Certification Guide when certifying the launch system design for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle-class SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles,” the inspector general said in a memo sent Monday to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.

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The Air Force’s 2015 certification of SpaceX allowed the Hawthorne company to take on military payloads, bringing competition to military space launches that were being handled solely by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between top defense contractors Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. At the time, Musk said he was getting into the business in part to end a monopoly.

The review will begin this month, the memo said, and will be undertaken at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in El Segundo.

The memo to Wilson was signed by Michael Roark, deputy for intelligence and special program assessments. It didn’t say what prompted the evaluation.

Dwrena Allen, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon watchdog, said the evaluation “was a self-initiated project by the Office of Inspector General. It is one of the key projects in the OIG’s expanding oversight focus on the Department of Defense’s space, missile defense, and nuclear management challenges.”

SpaceX officials declined to comment. Air Force spokesman Brig. Gen. Edward Thomas said the service didn’t have an immediate comment.

The Air Force certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to carry military satellites after a bitter feud between Musk and the service. As a result, SpaceX agreed to drop a lawsuit challenging U.S. contracts for military satellite launches awarded to United Launch Alliance.

Since the certification, SpaceX has won several competitions against United Launch Alliance, including contracts to launch some of the nation’s next-generation GPS III satellites, the first of which occurred in December.

SpaceX and Boeing also compete for non-military space launches. Both companies have contracts with NASA to ferry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station. A key test for SpaceX in that effort — the maiden flight of its Crew Dragon vehicle, without any astronauts on board — is slated for March 2.

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