Each has negotiated a unique path to certification with the Air Force, based on how much commercial, NASA or Pentagon business they earn—to prove experience—and how much access they will give USAF to pricing and technical data to support cost validation and mission assurance requirements.
SpaceX's OSP-3 contract win clearly puts it ahead of Orbital in the race to take on ULA, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says the company's wins are a “vote of confidence” in its work developing the Falcon family. But certification will take time. Orbital plans its first Antares launch in the first quarter of next year for NASA 's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, says Barron Beneski, a company spokesman. “We'll have to earn our stripes for the Antares program,” he says. A second mission for COTS is also planned, with eight slated for the follow-on Commercial Resupply Service project.
Meanwhile, the SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 and Falcon Heavy must make three flights before certification will be granted, according to the company's Katherine Nelson. “We expect Falcon 9 to accomplish that next year,” she says, and “we expect the Falcon Heavy process to follow Falcon 9 by about a year.”
The Dscovr and STP-2 flights will provide one flight each for the Falcon 9 v1.1 and Heavy variants.
Though SpaceX successfully docked its Dragon capsule with the International Space Station this year, much work remains to demonstrate its launch vehicle capabilities. The new Merlin 1D engine, to be used for the v1.1 and Falcon Heavy, is still being developed and is not expected to fly until spring at the earliest.
However, the missions offer SpaceX opportunities to demonstrate new capabilities. Though the company has delivered supplies twice to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit, the Air Force has varied mission needs. For example, the Dscovr mission will require an upper-stage coast, and the satellite was designed to operate with a continuous sun-lit view of the Earth, which will require it to be positioned at the Earth's Lagrangian point about 932,000 mi. away. And, Air Force launches often require delivering a satellite into geosynchronous orbit 23,000 mi. above Earth, a different challenge from conducting operations in low Earth orbit.
Though competition is at least a few years out for ULA, its pricing for EELV launches continues to be scrutinized by the government. As a result, the Air Force's proposal to buy five years worth of rockets from ULA to receive lower pricing with larger orders has met with skepticism from Congress.
Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall approved the buy of 36 rockets from ULA, while reserving up to 14 for competition once a contender is ready. A contract has not yet been signed, but the decision clears the way for the Air Force to negotiate pricing and terms with ULA for the missions ordered in fiscal 2013-17. These launches would take place into 2019.
Skeptics of the strategy argue that funding ULA work so far into the future bolster's the company's monopoly position and leaves too few opportunities for potential new entrants. The Air Force is in a quandary. It must provide funding and stability to its only rocket provider, and will get the best price only by buying in bulk. But it must also foster a competitive landscape and maintain as level a playing field as possible for manufacturers.
ULA is also under pressure to improve more than pricing. Until October, the company boasted a flawless track record of Atlas V and Delta IV flights.But a serious low-thrust problem was detected on the RL10 upper stage, made by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, for a Delta IV boosting the Boeing GPS IIF-3 satellite Oct. 8. The Air Force convened an investigation board to explore the root cause.