Start-up rocket-maker Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX and headed by billionaire Elon Musk, has agreed to drop its lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force after the service pledged to open more satellite launches to competition.
The company based near Los Angeles sued the service last year for the chance to compete in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV program. The acquisition effort launches military and spy satellites atop Atlas and Delta rockets made by a joint venture between defense giants Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co.
SpaceX challenged a contract the service had awarded to the venture, known as United Launch Alliance LLC, for 36 launches through fiscal 2017. The Air Force statement doesn't specify how many additional missions will be made available for competition. Still, the arrangement is likely a win for SpaceX and a loss for ULA.
"The Air Force ... has expanded the number of competitive opportunities for launch services under the EELV program while honoring existing contractual obligations," according to the statement. "Going forward, the Air Force will conduct competitions consistent with the emergence of multiple certified providers."
SpaceX hasn't yet received certification to launch GPS and other military satellites.
The Air Force had planned to approve the company to launch national security payloads by the end of last year. The certification process overseen by Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, was delayed some six months.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James recently said the vast majority, or some 80 percent, of the paperwork was finished. "This is real engineering work that needs to be demonstrated, this is not a paperwork shuffle," she said. "I hope SpaceX knows we’re operating in good faith."
The statement says the Air Force will work with SpaceX "to complete the certification process in an efficient and expedient manner." Again, though, it's not exactly clear when the service hopes to finish the process.
In response, SpaceX agreed to dismiss its claims related to the so-called block-buy contracts pending in the United States Court of Federal Claims.
The Air Force estimates it will spend a total of $70 billion on the program through 2030. SpaceX, which has dramatically lowered the cost of launch to between $60 million and $70 million per liftoff, wants a piece of the U.S. military market. It hopes to further reduce launch costs by developing reusable rockets.