SpaceX flight opens door for U.S. military payloads

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida Tue Jun 5, 2012 6:52pm EDT

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Space Exploration Technologies' unmanned Dragon capsule arrived in Los Angeles on Tuesday following a test flight for NASA that could open the door to a long-desired and more elusive customer - the U.S. military.

The cargo capsule blasted off May on 22 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida and three days later became the first privately owned spaceship to reach the International Space Station, a $100 billion project of 15 nations that flies some 240 miles above Earth.

Dragon splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on May 31 and was returned by barge to the Port of Los Angeles before dawn on Tuesday.

The successful test flight not only means Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, can start working off a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to fly cargo to the space station. It also clears a key hurdle for SpaceX to compete for Department of Defense business as well, which would mean launching military satellites.

Dragon's launch was the third successive flight of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, which debuted in June 2010.

Flying three times successfully was among the criteria the company needed to meet to become eligible to compete for military business under a new program designed to draw competition into a field now monopolized by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

“"The new entrant criteria did say three launches are required (for Falcon 9) before certification can happen for national security payloads," said SpaceX Communications Director Kirstin Brost Grantham.

There are several paths toward certification, and the requirements can vary, Air Force spokeswoman Tracy Bunko said.

"“If the new entrant has a launch vehicle with a more robust, demonstrated successful flight history, then we may require less technical evaluation for certification. But, it also depends on the risk assessment of the mission," Bunko wrote in an email to Reuters.

Near term, United Launch Alliance, or ULA, will remain the sole provider of heavy- and medium-lift commercial launch services to the U.S. military with its Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets.

But the wall is cracking. The Air Force is expected to award a non-ULA launch services contract this year for the Deep Space Climate Observatory, a NASA Earth-monitoring satellite that is being repurposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) into a solar observatory. The Air Force issued a request for bids on May 11.

A second satellite, the Air Force's Space Test Payload-2, also has been set aside for a new launch services provider.

ELUSIVE MARKET

In addition to 12 cargo-delivery flights for NASA, SpaceX has booked Falcon rocket flights for more than 28 other launches for a variety of companies, foreign governments and other customers.

"The one market that we have not yet been successful with is launching Defense Department satellites, although we're hopeful that we'll win one or two demonstration launches this year," Musk said after Dragon's return from orbit.

"Hopefully the successive flights of Falcon 9 in a row will give them the confidence they need to open up the defense contract for competition," he said.

Robert Bigelow, the president of privately owned Bigelow Aerospace, said the Falcon 9 would create a paradigm shift within the global launch industry.

"The Falcon 9 has clearly arrived and proven itself as a reliable and affordable launch system for NASA, the Air Force and commercial payloads," said Bigelow.

His company plans to build, fly and operate commercial space stations and habitats in orbit, and has a marketing agreement with SpaceX for flight services.

Last week, SpaceX added Intelsat as the first customer for its planned Falcon Heavy rocket, which is expected to have twice the lift capacity of ULA's Delta 4 Heavy, currently the biggest booster in the U.S. fleet.

A Falcon Heavy mission costs between $83 million and $128 million, according to SpaceX's website, a fraction of a Delta 4 Heavy rocket launch.

For now, ULA isn't worried.

"In order for a fair competition, a new entrant would need to support the full set of mission and technical requirements. In addition, entrants also will be faced with stringent government oversight, accounting and reporting requirements - none of which is part of a commercial business plan," ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye wrote in an email to Reuters.

"ULA also understands that the issue is not about competition, but how can our customers enable the reliable delivery of important space capabilities that protect our nation and promote science at the most cost-efficient method," she added.

(Editing by Jane Sutton)

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Comments (5)
SDSteve wrote:
Well, all of the nay-sayers and doubters, including former astronauts, can say what they will, but at this time the only U.S. based system able to re-supply the Space Station is Dragon. NASA went out of this business when the shuttle retired. The Defense Department needs to open up the military launch market, stop dealing only with the “good old boys” of the launch business and, hopefully, save the taxpayers some money. If Dragon is good enough to re-supply humans at the Space Station, it is certainly adequate to launch DOD payloads.

Jun 05, 2012 4:52pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
mlorrey wrote:
Amused that the ULA press flak says “its not about competition”, ya they wish. All those regulations are really barriers to entry and competition.

Jun 05, 2012 6:23pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
sloguy wrote:
If you saw the Dragon news conference, the NASA manager was so happy he was weeping like the mother of the bride at a wedding. The establishment figured that they didn’t need to do anything but sit back and laugh as Elon Musk and SpaceX fell flat on their faces, NASA would be embarrassed and Congress would put an end to this nonsense. The good old boys figured that Elon had a better chance of winning the lottery. They were almost right, the first three flights of the falcon 1 failed, and if flight four had failed, SpaceX would have been finished. Now, a bunch of lobbyists will fully fund their retirements trying to convince congress success doesn’t matter.

SpaceX is efficient! They build most of their stuff in house and under one roof. Congress wants everything spread around; nuts made in Vermont, bolts made in New Jersey, and washers made in Texas, and made by vendors who have to hire lots of redundant people to shuffle government paper work. Its not about efficiency! Its about PORK and getting RE-ELECTED!! The establishment won’t make the mistake of ignoring SpaceX again.

Jun 05, 2012 6:39pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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