Elon Musk’s SpaceX is traveling in a potentially more lucrative business orbit, thanks to the U.S. Air Force’s recent green light to launch military satellites.
The Air Force’s certification of a rocket made by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. — SpaceX’s mouthful of a corporate moniker — means the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company can bid on key Pentagon military contracts. Its SpaceX Falcon 9 Launch System is a two-stage rocket providing transport of satellites or other spacecraft into orbit.
“As the first rocket completely developed in the 21st century, Falcon 9 was designed from the ground up for maximum reliability,” SpaceX said. “Falcon 9’s simple two-stage configuration minimizes the number of separation events. And with nine first-stage engines, it can safely complete its mission even in the event of an engine shutdown.”
The U.S. military appears similarly enthusiastic about the prospects for Falcon 9.
“This is a very important milestone for the Air Force and the Department of Defense,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said. “SpaceX’s emergence as a viable commercial launch provider provides the opportunity to compete launch services for the first time in almost a decade. Ultimately, leveraging of the commercial space market drives down cost to the American taxpayer and improves our military’s resiliency.”
The first upcoming opportunity for SpaceX to compete on providing military launch services comes in June, when the Air Force will seek proposals for a GPS satellite. The only other certified launch provider qualified to bid on that contract is United Launch Alliance, a San Diego-based joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
Said SpaceX CEO Musk: “This is an important step toward bringing competition to National Security Space launch. We thank the Air Force for its confidence in us and look forward to serving it well.”
Musk is a co-founder of Tesla Motors and PayPal, and is involved in a range of other entrepreneurial efforts. SpaceX’s successes to date include winning several NASA contracts, such as big commitments to fly astronauts and cargo to the International Space Stations.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates the market for U.S. national security launches at $70 billion through 2030. The Air Force certification gives SpaceX access to roughly one-third of that market.
SpaceX is also seeking certification if its more powerful Falcon Heavy rocket, which may conduct its first test mission this year.
Last year, SpaceX sued the Air Force over the award of an $11 billion contract to United Launch Alliance. The suit was settled in January, with the contract left intact and the Air Force pledging to try to complete the initial SpaceX certification by June.
SpaceX has been working on the Air Force certification for two years. The effort involved people and a cost of $60 million, the Air Force said.
The Air Force’s certification team is located at Los Angeles Air Force Base, in El Segundo, Calif.