April 10, 2013
Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is nearly finished negotiating the details of its first two contracts providing launch services to the U.S. Air Force.
Talks for its Falcon 9 v1.1 launch of NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (Dscovr) satellite and a Falcon Heavy flight lofting the Air Force’s Space Test Program (STP-2) satellite should be wrapped up by the end of the month, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell tells Aviation Week. Dscovr is slated to boost in November 2014, with STP-2 to follow in September 2015.
Each of these flights will be one of three successful missions required for SpaceX to gain certification from the U.S. Air Force to boost future national security payloads. Both vehicles will rely on the yet-to-be-proven Merlin 1D. The Air Force has already set aside roughly $100 million for the Dscovr mission and another $162 million was being eyed for the STP-2 mission when Space X won the contracts in December.
These missions are the first two Air Force-funded activities for the company as it works to compete against United Launch Alliance (ULA), an incumbent monopoly operating the Atlas V and Delta IV vehicles for the Pentagon.
Along with building a launch track record, Shotwell says the company will undergo government audits and reviews of launch site operations prior to being eligible for certification to fly the most precious of the Pentagon’s spacecraft.
The trickiest part of gaining certification is likely to be validating software to the Air Force’s needs, Shotwell said April 10 during a panel at the 29th National Space Symposium here. “I anticipate software will be a challenge,” she said. This was a hurdle when preparing for NASA’s first Dragon mission as well. Three separate audits were conducted by NASA in the eight weeks preceding that flight, she said, before NASA was able “to be confident that we knew what we were doing.” That mission was successful.
Shotwell and Michael Gass, her rival CEO at ULA, traded barbs during the panel session, which addressed the issue of mission assurance. Shotwell said that “the government has realized that the only way they can afford” to have mission assurance is to drive competition into the market. Gass, however, encouraged the Air Force not to “gamble” with a new, unproven technology.
Brig. Gen. Roger Teague, director of strategic plans, programs and analysis at Air Force Space Command, says that today the service expects that mission assurance activities — such as tests and validation work — cost 2-5% of the total price of a rocket stack. This, he says, “is cheap insurance” in contrast to the price of losing a satellite that could cost more than $1 billion.