The Air Force expects to certify SpaceX no later than June to compete for space launches, under an updated agreement that streamlines the certification process
Once certified, SpaceX, with its Falcon 9 launch vehicle, can compete for national security space launches against United Launch Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin team that currently has a monopoly on Air Force launches.
The new agreement, announced May 8 by Air Force Space Command, clarifies that the commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center can certify SpaceX as long as the company has demonstrated its ability to design, produce, qualify and deliver the launch system. SpaceX must be able to provide future mission assurance support required to deliver national security payloads to specific orbits on schedule.
"I am very pleased with all we have accomplished," SMC Commander Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves said in a news release. "The updated [agreement] captures important lessons learned along the way about the process and allows the flexibility to certify SpaceX when ready, while maintaining our 'laser focus on mission success.' "
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told Congress on April 28 that she is confident the vehicle will be certified and be able to compete for two launches this year, along with seven more in 2016 and 2017. The company, founded by PayPal founder Elon Musk, has already carried multiple payloads for NASA.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement the new agreement is welcomed.
"We look forward to completing the certification process and competing for EELV [evolved expendable launch vehicle] missions," Shotwell said.
The move comes as the Air Force faces increasing pressure to open up its launches to new entrants, to break the monopoly that ULA has on the launches and ULA's reliance on a Russian-made rocket engine in its vehicles.