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SpaceX president discusses Air Force launches

Dec. 12, 2012 - 08:07PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 12, 2012 - 08:07PM  |  
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The president of SpaceX said the U.S. domestic space launch market has "changed dramatically" in the last two weeks as a result of an Air Force decision to award the upstart company its first military contracts.

Gwynn Shotwell also said SpaceX plans to grow its nascent military launch business.

"There's no question we're going to be flying national security missions," she said at a Dec. 11 meeting of the Washington Space Business Roundtable. "We have to. We want to support that warfighter overseas, too."

After calling the market for commercial space launches "incredibly stable, if not growing," Shotwell said her company was not worried about how sequestration could impact the industry.

"Frankly, I think it probably helps us with the Air Force," Shotwell said. The cost efficiencies her company has achieved for commercial launches make them a "little bit safer in the world of sequestration."

While generally positive on the state of commercial launches, Shotwell warned that the U.S. runs the risk of falling behind international competitors.

"The U.S. has definitely been complacent, I think, on launch," Shotwell said, specifically mentioning that China is investing heavily in space technology. "I think it's critically important not to write the Chinese off. I think they will be the fiercest competitor here in the next five to 10 years."

She also warned that the Air Force relationship with United Launch Alliance (ULA) is going to "have to get fixed." Until SpaceX was awarded its contracts in December, ULA had a stranglehold on the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) market, which accounts for almost all military space launches.

The Air Force funds ULA through two contracting vehicles: each individual launch contract and an annual launch capability sustainment contract worth roughly $1 billion. Challengers of ULA, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, have called the sustainment contract a "subsidy" that gives ULA an advantage over other companies.

Outside observers, including members of Congress, have also criticized the Air Force for how slow the service has been to certify ULA's challengers for military launches. In comments made after her speech, Shotwell supported DoD's process.

"I think what's important is the Air Force has looked at the issue and they've come up with a really great set of steps to resolve it," said Shotwell. "They understand that competition is good for them as a buyer and the steward of the taxpayers' money, and they came out with a great plan."

Those steps include three successful launches and a combination of design reviews with system and process audits.

"I'm very happy with the plan that they came out with [to bring in competition]," Shotwell said. "They worked really hard; this was not an easy thing for them to do, and frankly, I think they did a great job."

On Dec. 6, SpaceX became the first competitor to ULA to gain certification by the Air Force for EELV launches. The two launches will support the DSCOVR (Deep Space Climate Observatory) and STP-2 (Space Test Program 2) missions in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Both missions plan to launch from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk of PayPal and Tesla Motors fame, gained certification for launches under the Air Force's Orbital/Suborbital Program-3, which is designed to bring in new companies to the EELV world.

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