SpaceX Moves Closer to Launching Spy Satellites

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the start-up rocket-maker headed by billionaire Elon Musk, moved a step closer to launching military and spy satellites this week.

The U.S. Air Force said the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company known as SpaceX has completed the first of three missions needed to qualify for carrying military and intelligence satellites, which are generally bigger and more expensive than their commercial counterparts.

While the Sept. 29 liftoff of the upgraded Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., launched civilian satellites Cassiope, CUSat, Dande and Popacs into orbit, the mission nevertheless counted toward military certification, the service said in a news release.

“This flight represents one of many certification requirements jointly agreed to between the Air Force and SpaceX,” Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, the head of Space and Missile Systems Center at Air Force Space Command, said in the statement.

Under a June 2013 Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) between SpaceX and the Air Force, the company must perform at least three successful flights of a common launch vehicle configuration to be considered for launching critical and high-cost National Security Space (NSS) payloads, according to the release.

SpaceX has since completed on Dec. 3 and Jan. 6 two more launches of that version of the rocket, known as version 1.1, but the command is still determining whether they will meet the certification requirements. The two-stage, medium-lift rocket was designed in part to someday carry astronauts, in addition to spacecraft and cargo.

In addition to commercial business, the company has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA for at least a dozen cargo resupply flights to the International Space Station. It also plans to compete in the military market against United Launch Alliance LLC.

The latter is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., the government’s sole provider of medium- and heavy-lift rocket launches as part of a program called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV.

The Air Force alone last year budgeted some $1.9 billion for five EELV launches, or $376 million per mission. While government officials say a strategy to buy the launches in bulk has resulted in savings, they also want to open the program to competition from such companies as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to curb costs.

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Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Stan

    Good for them and for us. What a spectacular smart capitalism success story.

    • Dale Christopher

      Do you mean smart capital success story?

      • Stan

        I am not sure what the difference is. What I mean is that he looked at the ULA business model and realized he could do much better (much MUCH better). He implemented something like the production line for the entire vehicle within a single space (including engines, I believe). He is moving toward making the rockets reusable. Boeing and LM could have done this at any point over the past 40 years and they were perfectly content to just do the same old thing. Now SpaceX is on the verge of running off with their lunch money (and China’s, and Russia’s, in time). Smart capitalism or capital, this is el primo mythic American-style entrepreneurship.

    • Anonymous

      To be fair - SpaceX was started by a rich person. Capitalism is a whole lot easier if you already have money.

    • whocares

      Well SpaceX got its start with Air Force money with the Falcon 1. Without that funding no SpaceX today. Elon also dipped his beak in Dept of Energy loans to the tune of over $450 million to keep Tesla afloat during the early stages of the great 2008 recession. No loan, no Tesla today.
      What SpaceX and Tesla are are unusual success stories for government backed companies. Both companies seem to be providing excellent products for a hungry market.

    • Chuang Shyue Chou

      Exciting times! Commercialisation of space may see an opening up, lower costs and more.

  • blight_

    Hope Elon gives LM/Boeing a run for their money.

    • Ben

      If any one man on the planet can bring them down, it’s Elon Musk.

  • hibeam

    Are they using Muslim Mathematicians?

  • hibeam

    NASA has more beryllium flange inspectors than SpaceX has employees.

  • Tinto

    My brother was an engineer at the Cape for on several programs, he said that the only thing important to NASA Project Managers and Dept Heads, was how much $ and how long. Hear tell, about half of the cost of a Shuttle Launch was buried in the General Budget. Most likely SpaceX can do the job much cheaper.

    • Ben

      They already have, and much much cheaper.

      A Falcon 9 launch costs around $55mil to put 29,000lbs into LEO. A Falcon Heavy is projected to cost about $100mil and carry 117,000lbs to LEO.

      Now compare that to a Delta II rocket that costs $96mil to put a mere 13,000lbs into LEO. Or a Delta IV that costs somewhere between $375-435mil to put 50,000lbs into LEO.

      In the end it comes down to Space X dropped costs to somewhere around 1/10 the previous NASA costs, and they’re just getting started.

      • zivbnd

        And if they ever get to the point where they are re-using the first stages there costs will drop even more. Grasshopper just keeps going higher and coming back down in one piece and I believe the next Falcon 9 flight will actually carry landing legs to test the weight and stability, though they won’t actually be used, I don’t believe.
        But they will apparently try to soft land the first stage into the ocean to minimize damage. The last sentence was according to secondhand sources, so take it with a grain of salt.

  • mpower6428

    Just one more cent squeezed in the name of free market “SUBSIDIES”….. I’d rather “we” did it.

    • hibeam

      We should force Elon to have skin color Quotas. Without enough qualified people available he could have about 1/4 of his work force sitting around being the correct color and not much else. Been there seen that.

  • hibeam

    I see a lot of smoke. It could crash into an aquifer. We should put a moratorium on launches while Obama worries about aquifers.

  • Dfens

    Don’t you think it is odd how a company using mainly their own funds to develop a rocket can both design and build the rocket for much less than it would cost to have a company like, oh say, Lockheed or Boeing to do the same job using the tax dollars the US government takes from you and me at the point of a gun? No, you say? Yeah, me neither. I’ve worked on both kinds of programs. In fact, I’ve worked on both types of programs for companies like Boeing and Lockheed and I can tell you first hand there is one hell of a big difference between the way those companies treat a program where their money is at stake versus a program where your tax dollars are funding the way. It is a day vs. night kind of difference.

  • Sean Dione

    I agree with Dfens. Back in the early 80s, I worked for Northrop in Hawthorne, on the F-20, or to some the F-5G. Basically an F-5 with one F-18 engine and upgraded avionics. Northrop was using their own money to develop it hoping to sell it to foreign customers. Unfortunately, foreign countries only wanted what the Air Force/Navy was flying, and since the F-20 was equal (not better) than the F-16, it eventually died. I was amazed how efficient the company worked when no tax dollars was used, compared to the F-18 (Northrop originally designed the F-17, which became the F-18, and they build 40% of all F-18s as the primary sub-contractor to then McDonnel Douglas - now Boeing). I see a pattern here.

  • hibeam

    That was the CIC on the phone. He doesn’t care if the guidance code is ready. Launch anyway.