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SpaceX expects launcher certification this year

Jun. 4, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
SpaceX hopes its Falcon 9 rocket will receive Air Force certification by the end of this year.
SpaceX hopes its Falcon 9 rocket will receive Air Force certification by the end of this year. (SpaceX)
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SpaceX is on track for certification on national security launches by the end of the year despite the company’s lawsuit against the Air Force, the company’s president said on Wednesday.

The upstart space launch company sued the Air Force in April over a decision to award the United Launch Alliance (ULA) a guaranteed block of 36 national security launches. At the same time, the company hopes to have its Falcon 9 rocket certified by the service for military launches before the end of the year.

That has created the unusual situation of a company suing its customer at the same time it is trying to win business. As Gen. William Shelton, the head of Air Force Space Command put it, “Generally, the person you’re going to do business with you don’t sue.”

Speaking at an Atlantic Council event Wednesday, Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s president and COO, insisted she has not seen “any impact” on the certification process since her company launched its suit.

“There are two elements here,” Shotwell said. “There’s the procurement end and then there’s certification. We’ve been working with the Air Force on the certification side. There’s been a lot of rhetoric about it, but if you were to ask [Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, the head of Space and Missile Systems Command] and myself, we are moving forward regardless of the activity on the other side.

“The certification process is new. We’re kind of grinding it out together, paving the way for the next set of new entrants.”

Shotwell expressed confidence that the Falcon 9 will be certified before the end of the year, but acknowledged the new certification process is putting strain on the service.

Because of that, SpaceX has held off on beginning the certification process on its Falcon Heavy system, which would be able to take larger payloads into space than the Falcon 9. The Heavy will fly in “the first half of next year.”

“We are going to start that process shortly,” she said of the Falcon Heavy certification. “I have to tell you, we are overwhelming the Air Fore with data and documents for review right now, so we want to keep that [Falcon 9 certification] piece on track, and we could like to enter into Falcon Heavy certification as soon as we can thereafter.”

Shotwell called the lawsuit “a difficult decision to make, but I think, important…. It was the right decision then, and I don’t think it was the wrong decision now. So no regrets.”

She later noted that a potential out-of-court settlement would be “the best outcome” for the suit, but declined to speculate whether the Air Force would move in that direction or what a settlement might look like.

The tone of Shotwell’s comments were different from those of company CEO Elon Musk, who lashed out at the Air Force in his comments announcing the lawsuit. That may be a smart idea, as she estimated that the national security market for her company is around $3 billion if certification goes through.

However, she continued the company’s line of attacking ULA, a joint Lockheed Martin and Boeing venture that has had a monopoly on the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle market. SpaceX and other critics claim ULA has been gouging taxpayers on the cost of launch.

For its part, ULA claims SpaceX is purposefully overstating how much it costs per launch under the block buy contract.

She also hit at ULA’s continued reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 engine for its Atlas V rocket. There have been threats from Russia that it could cut off supplies of the engine, potentially leaving the Atlas V grounded.

“I think we’re in an unfortunate place right now in national security space launch,” Shotwell said of the RD-180 issue.

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