US Air Force certifies SpaceX for more critical satellite deployments but will need to win in contract bidding

The U.S. Air Force has now certified SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy spacecraft to perform crucial and sensitive satellite deployments in their behalf but not for all of them.

As of late, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy spacecraft has been conducting commercial space launches for the Defense Department’s Space Test Program (STP) but not yet for the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) missions because the U.S.Air Force noted that there are specific criteria that SpaceX has yet to meet at the time.

The Air Force’s NSSL missions are of particular sensitivity because it oversees the launches of the nation’s most valuable and least risk-tolerant satellites for the military and the intelligence community.

Following a June 25 Falcon Heavy STP-2 mission, the U.S. Air Force has cleared SpaceX for potential NSSL satellite deployments but, still, not for all of them.

Although the STP-2 mission was managed by the Air Force and sent 24 satellites into orbit for them, the government agency noted that it was not an NSSL mission. However, it did complete SpaceX’s required number of demonstrations before certifying for NSSL deployments.

According to Air Force officials, a commercial space company needs to complete three missions to receive NSSL certification, and STP-2 was SpaceX Falcon Heavy’s third. It first conducted a demonstration mission in February 2018, which was then followed by Arabsat 6A in April 2019.

Meanwhile, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 was certified in May 2015 and successfully flew its first NSSL mission in December.

On the other hand, despite Falcon Heavy meeting the three-mission requirement gained SpaceX the certification for NSSL mission launches, they are still limited to the number of orbits to which they can deploy satellites for the Air Force.

For the military, launch vehicle systems are certified for specific mass and orbit combinations. A spokesman for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center said the Falcon Heavy is approved for two Phase 1A reference orbits.

In other words, SpaceX is only certified for certain orbits and not all of them. The space company has yet to develop its technology and systems to gain certification for the rest.

As of now, SpaceX is approved for two Air Force NSSL launches. The two launches are part of the initial contract the space company won the Air Force’s Phase 1A of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, which has been renamed to the National Security Space Launch.

In June 2018 the Air Force awarded SpaceX a $130 million contract for the launch of the Air Force Space Command-52 (AFSPC-52) satellite aboard Falcon Heavy. In February the Air Force selected the Falcon Heavy for the AFSPC-44 mission as part of a $297 million contract that also includes two Falcon 9 launches for National Reconnaissance Office satellites NROL-85 and NROL-87.

AFSPC-52 and AFSPC-44 are scheduled to be launched in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

If SpaceX wishes to maximize their newly granted certification, however, they will need to win more contracts from the next Air Force launch procurement competition or the Phase 2 of the NSSL program.

To win a Phase 2 contract, bidders have to show they can reach nine reference orbits and lift a wide range of payload sizes.

Individually, for SpaceX to win a Phase 2 contract, it would have to demonstrate that both it’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy spacecraft can meet all the mass/orbit combinations required by the Air Force.

“We are in the middle of evaluating” plans submitted last month in response to a request for proposals for NSSL competitions that will last through 2027, Lieutenant General John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, said in an interview.

In Phase 2, the Air Force will select two launch providers from a field of four competitors that includes United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Northrop Grumman. Notably, ULA, Blue Origin, and Northrop Grumman are developing new vehicles for the Phase 2 competition, and all will have to go through the certification process.

Thompson cited that they are evaluating “the technical maturity of all of the offerers’ rockets” and said they are “on track to meet our requirements.”

However, when asked if SpaceX’s expertise with reusable boosters gives it an edge in the new competition, Thompson said: “it depends.”

“All four of the offerers that we anticipate” have “different business models” with aspects that would benefit taxpayers, he said. “So reusability is just one way to change the return-on-investment for the vendor and be able to price a little bit differently in a competition.”

Both SpaceX and Blue Origin are considering reusing boosters in the next phase “way more than once,” he said.

“That is an option for national security space launches that we are very excited about adding into our portfolio, but it’s not the only way to ensure that we get a strong bang for the buck,” he said.

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