FLYING ABOVE THE PACIFIC — SpaceX has been certified for military space launch, the US Air Force announced Tuesday.
The long-awaited announcement is a game changer, with SpaceX becoming only the second provider cleared by the service to launch national security payloads into orbit.
The first opportunity for SpaceX to compete comes in June when the service releases a request for proposal GPS III launch services.
"This is a very important milestone for the Air Force and the Department of Defense," Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in a DoD press release. "SpaceX's emergence as a viable commercial launch provider provides the opportunity to compete launch services for the first time in almost a decade. Ultimately, leveraging of the commercial space market drives down cost to the American taxpayer and improves our military's resiliency."
In the same release, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said: "This is an important step toward bringing competition to National Security Space launch. We thank the Air Force for its confidence in us and look forward to serving it well."
The process has not been easy for the California-based company. Supporters of SpaceX, including Musk, have criticized the Air Force for the lengthy process to achieve certification. Musk went so far as to intimate Air Force officials were purposefully slow-rolling his firm.
Last year, in the midst of the certification process, the company sued the Air Force over a decision to award legacy provider United Launch Alliance (ULA) with a block-buy of contracts. The lawsuit was eventually settled, with the service promising to do a better job in the future of keeping contracts open for competition.
Speaking to Defense News in April, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell acknowledged a culture gap between SpaceX's Silicon Valley startup culture and that of the Pentagon.
SpaceX is challenging ULA, a joint venture from Lockheed Martin and Boeing, which has had a monopoly on military space launch through the service's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) contract. The hope from the Air Force is that competition leads to cheaper prices for the Pentagon.
Even before SpaceX was formally certified, it forced ULA to change how it does business — including the development of a new rocket vehicle, known as the Vulcan, as well as a focus on driving down cost.