WASHINGTON — SpaceX has snagged its first US Air Force contract to launch military satellites into space, a huge victory for the aerospace company.

The Air Force recently awarded SpaceX, headed by billionaire Elon Musk, a nearly $83 million contract for launch services to deliver its GPS III satellite into space, the Department of Defense announced Wednesday.

The award marks a triumph for SpaceX, which just last year succeeded in certifying its Falcon 9 rocket to compete for military space contracts. SpaceX's only competition, United Launch Alliance pulled out of the competition in November after Congress in 2015 banned the use of the Russian RD-180 rocket engines for military satellite launches after 2019 in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine.

ULA,  a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, was the sole source of military space launch up until SpaceX's certification last year.

ULA has recently butted heads with Congress over the RD-180, which powers its Atlas V rocket. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been seeking a permanent ban on using the RD-180 for military space launch after 2019, but his efforts were thwarted last year when the fiscal year 2016 omnibus bill included a provision that allowed ULA to keep buying RD-180s from Moscow until a domestic alternative is available.

Most recently the House Armed Services Committee passed a measure in its version of the fiscal 2017 defense policy bill that would allow the Air Force to buy up to 18 RD-180s — the number the Air Force has said it needs — through 2019, the earliest date the US industrial base can finish work on a domestic solution.

The legislation still needs to clear a series of hurdles before it becomes law: a House floor vote and a conference with the Senate version of the bill before it faces a vote by the full Congress and the president's signature.

McCain has also taken issue with a unique contract arrangement ULA holds with the Air Force. Under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Launch Capability (ELC) contract, the service essentially pays ULA hundreds of millions of dollars a year to fund the cost of maintaining the company's launch infrastructure. In 2006 when the arrangement was established, it made sense because ULA was the Pentagon's sole source for military space launch.

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

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