WASHINGTON — The DoD office in charge of space systems announced an agreement with SpaceX, marking another major step for the upstart rocket company as it seeks to move in on the military launch market.
The Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with SpaceX in order to better evaluate the company’s Falcon 9 v1.1 launch system. The CRADA facilitates “data exchanges and protects proprietary and export-controlled data,” SMC said in its press release.
As part of the evaluation under the CRADA, SMC will look at the Falcon 9’s flight history, reliability, maturity, safety systems, risk management and vehicle design, among other factors. The goal is to gather as much information as possible for potential certification of SpaceX as an Evolved Expandable Launch Vehicle (EELV) provider for military systems.
In 2012, the Air Force announced a new block buy strategy that would see it purchase 36 launch cores from the United Launch Alliance (ULA), while saving 14 missions for a new entrant. SpaceX, led by PayPal and Tesla Motor founder Elon Musk, is viewed as likely to win some, if not all, of those 14. ULA has long had a monopoly on the EELV market with its Delta IV and Atlas V rockets.
SMC “anticipates” entering similar deals with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket and Orbital Sciences’ Antares launch vehicle, according to the release. Once entrants are certified, contracts could be awarded as early as fiscal 2015, with launch in fiscal 2017.
“Certifying Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles for new entrants is in keeping with the Air Force strategic intent to promote the viability of multiple domestic EELV-class launch providers as soon as feasible,” Col. William Hodgkiss, launch systems director, said in the press release.
Injecting competition into the launch market and searching for cheaper ways to get military satellites into orbit is part of the larger Pentagon plan referred to as “disaggregation.” Gen. William Shelton, the head of Air Force Space Command, has indicated that finding ways to drive down launch costs is a key priority for his team.
SMC, part of Air Force Space Command, is at the heart of acquiring and fielding new military space systems. The unit works out of Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, Calif.