SpaceX seems to be taking the world—make that the universe—by storm. The private contractor hauls cargo to the ISS, and despite an initial launch glitch, it has begun taking communications satellites into orbit. The company is also working on manned flight capabilities, with the long-term goal to get people to Mars. There seems to be no aspect of space travel SpaceX isn’t involved in, and now it’s poised to launch missions for the U.S. military.
This week, Elon Musk told the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense that he’s ready to get in the running for Air Force contracts based on the strength of theFalcon rocket. “Frankly, if our rockets are good enough for NASA, why are they not good enough for the Air Force?” Musk says. Fair point, though NASA has different requirements for its contracts.
SpaceX recently upgraded the Falcon 9 rocket, which has two stages and nine engines, which is an important factor in safety. The upgrades qualify the rocket for the Air Force Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, which began in the 1990s to guarantee Department of Defense and other government agencies reliable and relatively affordable access to space. To qualify for contracts, SpaceX had to conduct three successful launches of the upgraded Falcon, which it has now done. So far only one of those launches has been certified by the Air Force; the other certifications should be coming.
SpaceX should be able to compete for contracts for launches scheduled in 2015. “We believe that we can manage all of the Air Force’s satellites and then some,” says Musk. The competition, however, just got stiffer with the recent announcement that the U.S. Air Force is cutting half the number of launches it will award from 2015-2017. Part of that is because of projected program slowdowns and reduced procurements of GP3 3 satellites.
The decreased launch number is fueling doubts about whether the Air Force can fairly conduct a competition to award these launches since United Launch Alliance has thus far been the Air Force’s only service provider. But SpaceX has long demonstrated its ability to break into just about any market, and something tells me this time will be no different.