Air Force Certifies SpaceX for National Security Launches

Air Force Certifies SpaceX for National Security Launches

The Air Force certified SpaceX to launch national security satellites today.   The long-anticipated certification makes the company eligible to compete against the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which has held a virtual monopoly on launching the nation’s most critical military and intelligence satellites since 2006.

SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk thanked the Air Force for its confidence in the company, while Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James called it a “very important milestone for the Air Force and the Department of Defense.”

Although SpaceX already was awarded two Air Force contracts, for the launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) earlier this year and an upcoming launch of  a Space Test Program satellite, those were not part of the coveted “EELV-class” launches performed by ULA.   ULA builds and launches the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, so-called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs).   Atlas V and Delta IV were sold separately by their respective manufacturers, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, until 2006 when a dwindling market threatened both.  ULA was the solution.  Jointly owned by the two companies and with a guaranteed level of financial support from the government, it has an impeccable record of launches. 

The launches are quite expensive, however, and with the emergence of SpaceX, questions began to arise as to whether competition might drive the prices down.  Russia’s invasion of Crimea last year added another twist.  Russian RD-180 engines power the Atlas V and many in Congress argued that the launch of U.S. national security satellites should not be dependent on a foreign country, especially Russia.   The 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requires the Air Force to stop using RD-180s by 2019 (although waivers are allowed under certain circumstance).   Debate continues to swirl around that requirement, but a transformation in the launch services industry has begun. 

The announcement today does not guarantee a sea-change in the launch services market, but opens that opportunity for SpaceX and potentially other launch service providers.  Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space said the certification process “provides a path” for them to “demonstrate the capability to design, produce, qualify, and deliver a new launch system” that provides the mission assurance necessary for national security payloads.

The Air Force repeatedly stated last year that SpaceX’s certification would be complete by December 2014.  For reasons that remain unclear, it took another 5 months, but is finally done.

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