Air Force May Certify SpaceX for Launches by December

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The U.S. Air Force may in December certify the start-up rocket-maker Space Exploration Technologies Corp. to compete to launch military and spy satellites, a general said.

“I root for SpaceX to come into the competition,” Gen. John Hyten, head of Air Force Space Command, said during a speech Tuesday at the Air Force Association’s annual conference. But he warned that the company may not be ready in time.

“The most important thing for this nation is assured access to space that works all the time,” he said. “That’s why the certification for SpaceX, hopefully by Dec. 1, is a big event. But if they’re not ready on Dec. 1, we have to stand up and say that, and that’s going to be difficult because I want competition.”

A spokesman for SpaceX didn’t immediately provide a response to an e-mail requesting comment. The company has long maintained that its Falcon 9 can do the missions for far cheaper than what the Air Force is currently paying the incumbent.

The California-based firm headed by billionaire Elon Musk has contracts with NASA to ferry cargo — and, as of late Tuesday, astronauts — to the International Space Station, as well as deals with commercial companies to launch satellites into space. Now, it’s trying to break into the national-security launch market.

Earlier this year, SpaceX sued the Air Force to open to competition more missions in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, program. The military business is currently dominated by a Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. joint venture known as United Launch Alliance LLC.

ULA’s reliance on the Russian RD-180 engine to power the first stage of the Atlas V rocket has been criticized by U.S. officials and lawmakers who fear that Moscow could cut off deliveries of the propulsion systems and thus interrupt American national-security missions. Indeed, Russia has already threatened to do so.

The Air Force recently began looking into ways to develop a possible replacement to the RD-180. The service next week plans to meet with firms interested in bidding for the work.

The Lockheed-Boeing joint venture has announced plans to team with Blue Origin LLC, a closely held company funded by and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, to develop a new engine. Meanwhile, Aerojet Rocketdyne has also partnered with a company called Dynetics to design the AR-1, a smaller, higher-performing version of the Apollo-era F-1, that could be used on both NASA and military rockets.

ULA, which has a track record of successful launches and was set to lift off a secret CLIO satellite made by Lockeed atop an Atlas V later Monday, recently announced a change in leadership, with Tory Bruno replacing Michael Gass as chief executive officer.

Late Tuesday, NASA announced that it awarded a $4.2 billion contract to Boeing and a $2.6 billion agreement to SpaceX to develop human-rated spacecraft to transport crews to and from the space station by 2017. Boeing is developing the CST-100 and SpaceX is upgrading its Dragon spacecraft for the work.

“SpaceX is deeply honored by the trust NASA has placed in us,” Musk said in a statement. “We welcome today’s decision and the mission it advances with gratitude and seriousness of purpose. It is a vital step in a journey that will ultimately take us to the stars and make humanity a multi-planet species.”

About the Author

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

    I’d be interested to know what kind of splash the recent failure of a Space X launch has made on the certification program. I’m rooting for their certification, but that mishap seems (on the surface) to be a big fat underlining of all the Air Force’s concerns.

    • KnownKnowns

      What failed launch? They haven’t had a failed launch since the Falcon 1 days.

      Maybe you mean the return system test rocket that self destructed in Texas? It was just a test rocket and the destruction was an automated safety feature after detecting an anomaly in flight.

      Also, the Air Force won’t be likely to use the reusable Falcon 9 once it is up and running because they need the extra fuel to launch larger payloads into higher orbits. Can’t spare the fuel needed to return the rocket to the launch pad.

  • KnownKnowns

    Even money says come Dec. 1 the Air Force will say that SpaceX isn’t ready even if they are. The Lockheed-Boeing cartel have an army of lobbyist and the generals in charge of making this decision stand to gain big paying jobs at either company when they retire.

    Just like how Boeing is going to win the NASA Commercial Crew contract even though the Dragon 2 is technically superior and cheaper ($140 Million per flight for Dragon vs $250 Million for CST-100) than the CST-100.

    SpaceX will get the backup contract and even when the CST-100 comes in way behind schedule and over budget, NASA probably won’t let the Dragon 2 go to the ISS until the CST-100 gets there first.

    I hope one day SpaceX has enough commercial business to tell the AF and NASA to F-off. My dream would be to see a Dragon 2 capsule deliver a civilian science crew to a Bigelow Aerospace space station before the CST-100 makes its first flight.

    • John Deere

      If SpaceX isn’t ready, then they won’t be allowed to compete for contracts. It’s that simple.

      SpaceX and Boeing have both been awarded contracts for taxi duties into low Earth orbit (LEO), NASA made it clear it will need the services of both companies. The CST-100 was developed by Boeing and Bigelow Aerospace, it’s a joint venture. You are inventing conflict where in reality none exists.

    • Dfens

      As their big programs take up more and more of their budget, the Air Force will become a one program wonder pretty soon. I’m sure the first thing they neglect will be space.

  • jamesb

    I vote for a REAL spaceship the Dream Chaser….

    Why are back to flying phone booths?
    From a DC-9 type backwards?

    • John Deere


      I’m waiting for the first prototype of Reaction Engines’ of Skylon.

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