The U.S. Air Force’s work to determine whether the Sept. 29 first launch of Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket will count toward the company’s requirements for certification to compete for government launches is being delayed by the U.S. government shutdown.
Mystery still surrounds what happened when Hawthorne, Calif. -based SpaceX commanded a restart of the upper stage engine following the drop-off of a small Canadian science satellite and three experimental payloads into polar low Earth orbit. Company founder Elon Musk has refuted suggestions that a rupture occurred with the upper stage.
The Air Force’s delay in assessing the mission’s results is due to the government shutdown, which began Oct. 1. Much of the technical work underpinning the Air Force’s space procurement programs is handled by The Aerospace Corp. The company imposed a work stoppage for 2,000 of its 3,500 employees on Oct. 3 in accordance with direction from the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center. During the shutdown, The Aerospace Corp. is only authorized to continue mission critical tasks such as work supporting upcoming launches and addressing flight operations.
“As part of the USAF Certification Agreement with SpaceX, this launch was a major milestone as one of three launches required,” says Col. Kathleen Cook, an Air Force Space Command spokeswoman. “The Air Force is completing the formal process of determining the certification of this flight as the first of the three required SpaceX launches.”
SpaceX is required to perform three successful launches of the Falcon 9 v1.1 with its new Merlin 1D engine — two of which must be consecutive – before the Air Force will consider it for certification to fly “Class A” government payloads; these are the most critical satellites that conduct missions such as missile warning and protected communications. The company must also submit to various technical reviews and audits to become certified to compete against its rival, United Launch Alliance, for government work.
Cook notes that the post-flight data review could take “several months” because of the shutdown.
Meanwhile, SpaceX asserts that despite an anomaly in restarting the upper-stage engine, the mission was a success and will be the first of the three needed for Air Force certification.
SpaceX’s certification pathway includes three successful flights of the upgraded Falcon 9 vehicle with a payload fairing, two of which must be flown consecutively, says company spokeswoman Emily Shanklin. “Our successful launch on Sept. 29 marked the first of these three flights. Second stage reignition was not part of the criteria for success because it was an internal test objective only, not a mission objective.”