The Falcon 9 rocket of Elon Musk’s SpaceX won U.S. Air Force certification for national security space missions, breaking the hold on sensitive satellite launches by a Boeing Co.-Lockheed Martin Corp. venture.
Space Exploration Technologies Corp. is expected to bring competition to military launches after reshaping the commercial rocket market with prices posted on its website. The first contest between the two launch providers could heat up as soon as June, when the Air Force said it will issue a request for proposal for GPS III launch services.
“SpaceX’s emergence as a viable commercial launch provider provides the opportunity to compete launch services for the first time in almost a decade,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in a statement Tuesday. “Ultimately, leverage of the commercial space market drives down cost to the American taxpayer and improves our military’s resiliency.”
Musk’s venture has fought for a role in military launches, which include satellites that let troops communicate on battlefields. The segment, estimated at about $70 billion through 2030 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, is the largest in a market that also includes civilian and commercial contracts, such as work SpaceX does for NASA.
SpaceX plans to launch government satellites for less than $100 million per Falcon 9 mission, Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, told a U.S. House of Representatives sub-committee in March.
United Launch Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed venture, charges $160 million or more for the comparably sized Atlas V spacecraft, which uses a Russian-made RD-180 engine, said Marco Caceres, director of space studies with Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based consultant.
SpaceX’s certification “is going to force ULA to be much more competitive on price, but still maintain their high standards on performance,” Caceres said in a phone interview. “This does jar the door open for SpaceX. It’s theirs to lose. They have a vehicle that’s proven and about half the price of the nearest competitor.”
United Launch Alliance said it’s “well-positioned to compete on a level playing field” given cost-savings initiatives and the new, lower-cost and reusable Vulcan rocket in development with an American-made engine to replace the RD-180.
“We welcome today’s announcement and look forward to competing with SpaceX and other new entrants,” the alliance, based in Centennial, Colorado, said in a statement. “We could not be more passionate and proud of our work, our people and our record of success.”
Air Force Process
Certifying SpaceX to ferry sensitive military and national-security payloads took two years and involved 150 people, at a cost of more than $60 million, the Air Force said.
In January, SpaceX agreed to drop its lawsuit against the Air Force’s “block buy” contract awarded to the Boeing-Lockheed venture, United Launch Alliance. The Air Force said then it would “work collaboratively with SpaceX to complete the certification process in an efficient and expedient manner.”
SpaceX plans to aggressively compete with Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed and Chicago-based Boeing, the biggest U.S. contractors. SpaceX has argued that the program, known by the military as the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, has cost taxpayers millions of dollars a year because United Launch has had a lock on the contracts since the two competitors joined forces a decade ago.
“The certification of SpaceX as a provider for defense space launch contracts is a win for competition,” said Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona. “Over the last 15 years, as sole-source contracts were awarded, the cost of EELV was quickly becoming unjustifiably high. I am hopeful that this and other new competition will help to bring down launch costs and end our reliance on Russian rocket engines that subsidizes Vladimir Putin and his cronies.”
Musk’s venture will probably see little short-term impact from Tuesday’s certification announcement given its already full launch schedule and the limitations of its Falcon 9 to haul heavy payloads to orbit, said Scott Pace, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.
“The immediate impact is probably not great,” Pace said in a phone interview, since upcoming satellite contests will be weighted to a larger vehicle. “In terms of a strategic move, it’s very, very significant in the long term.”
SpaceX already has a $1.6 billion contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to resupply the International Space Station and a second contract, valued at as much as $2.6 billion, to transport crews. The closely held company has opened a Seattle engineering office to develop its own satellites.
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to launch on a Falcon 9 rocket June 26, the company’s cargo mission under the NASA contract and its eighth visit to the space station.
Following the Falcon 9 certification, SpaceX will go through a similar process for the Falcon Heavy, a larger rocket designed to carry people into space and eventually to Mars. The company plans to conduct the craft’s first test flight this year.
Musk, 43, founded SpaceX in 2002 with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets. Once considered a long-shot startup, the company has grown to more than 4,000 employees.
Directors include Musk, SpaceX President and COO Shotwell, Antonio Gracias of Valor Equity Partners, Steve Jurvetson of Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Luke Nosek of Founders Fund. SpaceX in January raised $1 billion from Google Inc. and Fidelity Investments.
Jurvetson and Gracias are also on the board of Tesla Motors Inc., the luxury electric-car maker Musk runs, and Gracias also is a director for Solar City Corp., where Musk is chairman.
“This is an important step toward bringing competition to national security space launch,” Musk, chief executive officer of Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX said in a statement. “We thank the Air Force for its confidence in us and look forward to serving it well.”