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SpaceX signs framework for potential military launch deal
BY STEPHEN CLARK
SPACEFLIGHT NOW

Posted: June 12, 2013


The U.S. Air Force and SpaceX have signed an agreement allowing the commercial space transportation firm to eventually compete for launch contracts of the military's most expensive and sensitive satellites.


Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk sign a cooperative research and development agreement to help certify SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket for military launches. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Joe Juarez
 
The move opens the door for SpaceX to work its way into the Pentagon's space launch architecture and compete directly with United Launch Alliance to lift communications, navigation, missile warning and reconnaissance satellites into space.

Since the company formed in a merger of Boeing and Lockheed Martin's rocket divisions in 2006, ULA's Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets have captured 100 percent of the launch market for the military's major satellite programs.

The Air Force - in conjunction with NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office - released a guide in 2011 for companies with boosters seeking to enter the market for U.S. government satellite launches.

SpaceX and the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center, the branch's space acquisition division, signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, or CRADA, on June 7, the Air Force announced Tuesday.

The agreement covers the Falcon 9 v1.1, SpaceX's next-generation Falcon 9 launcher with upgraded Merlin engines, stretched propellant tanks and a payload fairing to loft satellites into a variety of orbits and on trajectories toward deep space.

SpaceX has launched five Falcon 9 rockets using another configuration. Those missions launched test flights of SpaceX's Dragon capsule and two operational resupply flights to the International Space Station under the company's $1.6 billion commercial cargo contract with NASA.

"A CRADA enables the Air Force to evaluate the Falcon 9 v1.1 launch system according to the Air Force's New Entrant Certification Guide," the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center said in a statement. "As part of the evaluation, SMC and SpaceX will look at the Falcon 9 v1.1's flight history, vehicle design, reliability, process maturity, safety systems, manufacturing and operations, systems engineering, risk management and launch facilities."

Air Force officials will monitor at least three launches of the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket to meet flight history requirements outlined in the certification guide, which is based on NASA's strategy for approving new launchers for its science missions.

SpaceX won contracts for the launch of two Air Force satellite missions in December. A Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket will launch the Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR, a joint project headed by the Air Force and NOAA, in late 2014. SpaceX's Falcon Heavy booster, a powerful rocket scheduled to debut in 2014, will loft multiple experimental satellites into different orbits on the Air Force's Space Test Program 2 mission in 2015.

SpaceX said in December both missions will lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.


Photo of a Falcon 9 rocket launch from Cape Canaveral in March. Credit: SpaceX/Ben Cooper
 
Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, said the DSCOVR and STP 2 missions are not among the Air Force's most critical satellite launches. The certification plan signed by SpaceX and the Air Force last week will cover the Defense Department's most vital space missions, Pawlikowski said.

The DSCOVR and STP 2 launch orders - valued at $97 million and $165 million, respectively - were awarded to SpaceX under the Orbital/Suborbital Program 3 contract, which allows contractors to compete to launch the military's smaller satellites, leaving the most massive spacecraft for United Launch Alliance rockets.

SpaceX's two launches already booked with the Air Force will go forward regardless of the status of the certification plan, Pawlikowski said.

"We actually identified [DSCOVR and STP 2] as opportunities for new entrants to use as a potential basis for their certification," Pawlikowski said in a conference call with reporters in May. "They don't need to be certified for those two. They do need to be certified before they can compete for any of the national security space missions that are currently projected on our manifest.

The military's "national security space" programs include National Reconnaissance Office spy satellites, GPS platforms, communications craft owned by the Air Force and Navy, infrared-equipped early warning satellites and other projects.

The Air Force has identified 14 missions to competitively bid with ULA, SpaceX and other potential companies.

The data-sharing arrangement will lay the foundation for SpaceX to bid for launches of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle-class missions. The Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets were developed by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. in the late 1990s and early 2000s to provide the military with assured access to space and instill competition, which officials thought would lower launch costs.

But predictions of a booming commercial launch market - needed to maintain high flight rates and introduce economies of scale - never materialized in the 2000s, forcing the costs of the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 programs higher.

Lockheed Martin and Boeing combined their government launch divisions in 2006, forming United Launch Alliance. The Air Force and NASA realized savings after the formation of ULA, according to a Government Accountability Office report, but launch costs continued to rise.

Air Force officials say the addition of SpaceX and other providers in the mix for EELV-class missions will reduce costs and add flexibility in the military's satellite launch manifest, ensuring spacecraft are launched when needed.

The Air Force said it anticipates entering into similar certification agreements for SpaceX's Falcon Heavy and the Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket.

EELV-class missions could be awarded to SpaceX as soon as fiscal year 2015, with launch services provided as early as fiscal year 2017, the Air Force said in a statement.

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