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SpaceX Still Certified to Launch Military Satellites Despite Rocket Failure

Rocket-maker Space Exploration Technologies Corp. is still certified to launch military satellites despite the recent explosion of its Falcon 9 rocket on a NASA mission to the International Space Station, a military official said.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, head of the Space and Missile Systems Center, confirmed as much in a recent e-mail to Military.com.

"The Falcon 9 Launch System remains certified and has demonstrated 18 successful missions, three of which met the requirements of the certification plan," he said.

The explosion of the company’s Falcon 9 on June 28 over Cape Canaveral, Florida -- more than two minutes into flight -- came just a month after it was certified by the U.S. Air Force to carry military satellites.

The cause of the mishap is under investigation, though SpaceX Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk has said the upper-stage liquid oxygen tank had too much pressure.

The certification ended a Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. monopoly in the defense market by allowing SpaceX’s Falcon 9 to launch national-security payloads under the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable launch Vehicle program.

SpaceX is expected to soon begin competing for military missions as soon as the Air Force releases a final request for proposals to launch a GPS III satellite.

"The Air Force released the Draft GPS RFP May 13, 2015, and has been receiving industry feedback," Greaves said. "The Final RFP release is planned for July 2015. This anomaly does not change the plan or timeline."

The Falcon 9 had completed seven previously successful missions delivering food, water and supplies to the International Space Station. The booster will be grounded for "a number of months or so," while an investigation into the accident takes place, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has said.

While the rocket remains certified to carry military payloads, it's unclear how the mishap will affect competitive launches in the EELV program -- a massive acquisition program estimated to cost $70 billion through fiscal 2030.

Gen. John Hyten, the head of Air Force Space Command, in April at the Space Symposium warned that failures will disrupt how the service will buy rocket launches from competitive providers.

"If something goes wrong, what do you have to do to return to fly in this kind of environment and who makes that decision?" he said at the time. "Because I’m not going to stand up and put a billion dollar satellite on top of a rocket I don't know is going to work. And if that’s the case, then that company who now is on this very busy launch schedule is now down. How do they stay in business with the other competitor launching and launching and launching? That’s a fundamental issue."

United Launch Alliance LLC, the Lockheed-Boeing joint venture and sole supplier of the EELV program, has attracted publicity over the past year for relying on a Russian engine, RD-180, to power its Atlas family of rockets. But the technology -- and additional mission-assurance funding -- has helped the firm achieve 96 successful launches since its formation in 2006.

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