Air Force May Certify SpaceX for Launches by December


NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The U.S. Air Force may in December certify the start-up rocket-maker Space Exploration Technologies Corp. to compete to launch military and spy satellites, a general said.

"I root for SpaceX to come into the competition," Gen. John Hyten, head of Air Force Space Command, said during a speech Tuesday at the Air Force Association's annual conference. But he warned that the company may not be ready in time.

"The most important thing for this nation is assured access to space that works all the time," he said. "That's why the certification for SpaceX, hopefully by Dec. 1, is a big event. But if they're not ready on Dec. 1, we have to stand up and say that, and that's going to be difficult because I want competition."

A spokesman for SpaceX didn't immediately provide a response to an e-mail requesting comment. The company has long maintained that its Falcon 9 can do the missions for far cheaper than what the Air Force is currently paying the incumbent.

The California-based firm headed by billionaire Elon Musk has contracts with NASA to ferry cargo -- and, as of late Tuesday, astronauts -- to the International Space Station, as well as deals with commercial companies to launch satellites into space. Now, it's trying to break into the national-security launch market.

Earlier this year, SpaceX sued the Air Force to open to competition more missions in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, program. The military business is currently dominated by a Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. joint venture known as United Launch Alliance LLC.

ULA's reliance on the Russian RD-180 engine to power the first stage of the Atlas V rocket has been criticized by U.S. officials and lawmakers who fear that Moscow could cut off deliveries of the propulsion systems and thus interrupt American national-security missions. Indeed, Russia has already threatened to do so.

The Air Force recently began looking into ways to develop a possible replacement to the RD-180. The service next week plans to meet with firms interested in bidding for the work.

The Lockheed-Boeing joint venture has announced plans to team with Blue Origin LLC, a closely held company funded by and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, to develop a new engine. Meanwhile, Aerojet Rocketdyne has also partnered with a company called Dynetics to design the AR-1, a smaller, higher-performing version of the Apollo-era F-1, that could be used on both NASA and military rockets.

ULA, which has a track record of successful launches and was set to lift off a secret CLIO satellite made by Lockeed atop an Atlas V later Monday, recently announced a change in leadership, with Tory Bruno replacing Michael Gass as chief executive officer.

Late Tuesday, NASA announced that it awarded a $4.2 billion contract to Boeing and a $2.6 billion agreement to SpaceX to develop human-rated spacecraft to transport crews to and from the space station by 2017. Boeing is developing the CST-100 and SpaceX is upgrading its Dragon spacecraft for the work.

"SpaceX is deeply honored by the trust NASA has placed in us," Musk said in a statement. "We welcome today’s decision and the mission it advances with gratitude and seriousness of purpose. It is a vital step in a journey that will ultimately take us to the stars and make humanity a multi-planet species."

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