SpaceX is the first would-be competitor to the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a monopoly birthed in 2006 out of Lockheed Martin's and Boeing's businesses to operate the Pentagon's Atlas V and Delta IV rockets.
Ultimately, the company hopes to get its Falcon 9 v1.1 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles certified for use boosting “Class A” Pentagon satellites—national security payloads that are not risk-tolerant. Company officials declined to be interviewed for this article, but they told the Government Accountability Office (GAO) they plan to achieve certification for the Falcon 9 v1.1 late this year. Both new SpaceX vehicles will rely on the yet-to-be-proven Merlin 1D engine; first flight is slated for this year.
Though negotiations are underway, SpaceX must achieve three flights of the v1.1 with a payload fairing, two of which must be flown consecutively, says Christina Ra, a company spokeswoman. The third of these vehicles is now being manufactured.
The Pentagon's strategy calls for depending solely on industry for development. “We are not paying SpaceX to develop,” says Scott Correll, the Air Force program executive officer for launch. Though SpaceX has achieved acclaim with its missions delivering cargo to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit, Air Force officials say this is only a first step. “Taking Dragon to 220 miles above Earth is quite different than the missions we conduct,” Correll says. “We want to make sure the upper stage can perform,” because much of the Air Force's hardware is in geosynchronous or medium-Earth orbits.
SpaceX beat Orbital Sciences, offering its yet-to-be flown Antares, for two Air Force missions in December. The first will require a Falcon 9 v1.1 to fly NASA's Deep Space Climate Observatory in November 2014. The second, a more complex mission, calls for the Falcon Heavy to boost a Space Test Program satellite in September 2015. These are non-Class-A missions, meaning the Pentagon can tolerate some risk to mission success.
“The hardest thing for SpaceX is going to be [to fly] a robust commercial manifest [and] do all of this activity with us,” Correll says. “I do believe they have the engineering talent . . . the question is what is their bandwidth?”
Correll declined to discuss the status of other possible new entrants, citing privacy concerns. However, Orbital is in talks to certify Antares (slated for a first flight in mid-April) by 2018; Lockheed Martin plans to certify its Athena III (although a target date is not set); and Alliant Techsystems is suggesting it will certify a version of its Liberty vehicle in late 2016, according to the GAO.
Meanwhile, Correll is balancing the program to welcome new entrants into the market against reducing the price of services from his monopoly provider. The Air Force is preparing for negotiations with ULA to buy 36-50 launch cores over the next five years. While ULA is expected to get work for 36 cores, the remaining 14 needed could be competed if entrants are available, or they could be added to ULA's contract.
A request for proposals for those 14 cores outside the ULA work scope is expected next January at the soonest, Correll says. These would be for up to five boosters in 2015 that would launch in 2017. If no contenders to ULA are certified by the time proposals are due, the orders for 2015 will be added to ULA's work order and the Air Force would reassess to see if a competitor is suitable a year later and so on, Correll says. He has a “high confidence” of a competitor being eligible in 2015 for fiscal 2017 launches.