Musk’s SpaceX Praised by Air Force Secretary as Launch Partner

The February launch of a climate observation satellite by billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX demonstrated a successful partnership with the U.S. Air Force, according to service Secretary Deborah James.

The satellite was launched Feb. 11 from a Falcon 9 rocket made by the company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., in partnership with the Air Force, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“SpaceX has made tremendous progress in establishing their place as a DoD launch provider,” and it “is on track to be certified by June” for Air Force and intelligence satellite missions, James said in a statement prepared for delivery Wednesday to a Senate Armed Services panel.

The praise was the latest sign of the emerging accord between the Pentagon and SpaceX after Musk went before Congress and the courts to denounce what he called a monopoly in launching military satellites by a venture of the two biggest U.S. contractors, Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co.

The “focus on mission assurance” in launching the Deep Space Climate Observatory “bodes well for a future Air Force-SpaceX partnership and opens the door for reintroducing competition” into military launches, James said.

The service and SpaceX continue “to work aggressively in order to finalize technical issues required to certify” the company’s rocket and associated design, production, operations and management processes, James said.

The Air Force plans for competition on seven of 10 launches planned for 2016 and 2017 and all 14 launches expected from 2018 to 2020.

The Air Force also has crafted a new strategy for launches that would end the dependence on the Russian-built engines used by the Lockheed-Boeing joint venture, United Launch Alliance LLC, and culminate in a competition for as many as 28 missions from 2020 to 2024, the service said in March.

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