CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., July 16 - The U.S. Air Force released
the first of up to eight solicitations for space launch services
outside of its controversial, exclusive, multibillion-dollar
agreement with United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed
Martin and Boeing.
The solicitation, posted on the Federal Business
Opportunities website on Tuesday, is the military's first major
commercial outreach for launch services in a decade.
A rocket is needed in 2016 to put a classified satellite
into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office, which
operates the nation's spy satellites. Currently, all of the
military's key spacecraft are launched on United Launch Alliance
Atlas 5 and Delta 4 boosters.
Privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX,
filed a lawsuit in April in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to
protest the Air Force's latest sole-source launch contract, an
$11 billion award for 36 booster rockets from United Launch
The Air Force and United Launch Alliance have asked the
court to dismiss the suit, claiming SpaceX missed its window of
opportunity to contest the arrangement, which was first
announced in 2012.
While SpaceX and the Air Force wrangle in court, they also
are closely cooperating to get SpaceX certified to compete for
future U.S. military launch contracts.
"If everything goes extremely well ... by December of this
year we'll have them certified," General William Shelton, head
of Air Force Space Command, said at a joint hearing of the
Senate Armed Services and Commerce committees on Wednesday.
"The only (launch services) provider that's really in a
serious certification process is SpaceX," Shelton added.
On Tuesday, the Air Force said SpaceX had completed three
successful, consecutive launches of its upgraded Falcon 9
rocket. A bevy of engineering reviews, manufacturing assessments
and other analysis is pending.
Shelton said the Air Force has 136 people assigned to the
SpaceX certification process, and expects to spend about $100
million on the effort.
Certifying SpaceX to fly U.S. military payloads also could
alleviate concerns about Russia banning exports of its RD-180
rocket engines, which are used to power the Atlas 5.
Congress is considering bills that include between $25
million and $250 million to assess options and begin work on a
new rocket engine. The Obama administration, which opposes the
proposal, estimates the engine would cost $4.5 billion.
"Throwing money at a problem where we don't know where we're
going is not a good idea at this point," Alan Estevez, who
oversees Department of Defense acquisitions, told legislators
during Wednesday's hearing, which was webcast.
Optimistically, it would take eight years to get a new
engine developed, tested and certified, Estevez added.
By that time, the issue could be moot.
The Air Force intends to end its sole-source relationship
with United Launch Alliance by Oct. 1, 2017, the start of the
2018 fiscal year, Shelton said.
SpaceX also plans to debut a heavy-lift Falcon rocket next
year. If successful, the company, owned and run by technology
entrepreneur Elon Musk, would have rockets technically capable
of meeting most if not all of the military's launch
Currently, the Delta 4 and some configurations of Atlas 5
are beyond the Falcon 9's capabilities, Shelton said.
Pressed by U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who
chairs the science and space subcommittee, Estevez conceded that
it would be substantially cheaper to certify a new launch
provider than pay for designing, building and testing a new
rocket engine for the Atlas 5.
"Development of new engine and integration costs are
obviously much more expensive than the cost to us to certify a
new entrant," Estevez said.
SpaceX declined to say whether it intended to bid for the
National Reconnaissance Office satellite launch.
"Opening up more National Security Space missions to
competition is a step in the right direction and SpaceX welcomes
this news," company spokesman John Taylor said in an email.
Proposals are due Aug. 14.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)