(Recasts; adds details on Russian engines, quotes from U.S. officials)
By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON, Sept 16 (Reuters) - Senior U.S. Air Force officials on Tuesday said they favored competition for military rocket launches, but the Air Force needed to stick to its high standards in certifying the Falcon 9 rocket, built by privately-held Space Exploration Technologies.
SpaceX is working through a detailed certification process with the Air Force for its Falcon 9 satellite so it can compete with United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp, to launch a National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite and other satellites.
The company has also sued the Air Force to get a larger share of the 36 launches now promised to ULA.
The issue has taken on new urgency this year after Russia’s actions in Ukraine raised concerns about ULA’s reliance on Russian-built RD-180 rocket engines for its Atlas 5 rockets.
Air Force officials underscored their determination to end U.S. reliance on the Russian engines, and said they would shape an acquisition strategy in coming months after hearing back from industry about possible solutions in coming days.
“The objective is to get off of the reliance on the RD-180 as soon as practicable,” Air Force Secretary Deborah James told reporters at the annual Air Force Association conference.
Air Force officials say one key step is to inject competition into the monopoly now held by ULA.
“Like every American, I love competition ... I root for SpaceX to come into the competition,” General John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, told the annual Air Force Association conference. But he also said the United States could not afford to lose any satellite given the fragile state of most systems, outside of the Global Positioning System satellites.
“First do no harm, is my view on this. Then get to competition as fast as we can,” Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh told reporters at the conference.
The U.S. military lost the ability to put satellites in space after the Challenger space shuttle exploded in the 1980s, Hyten said, and again in the late 1990s after a series of other rocket failures. Those problems resulted in “huge voids” in U.S. military capabilities, he said, and the military could not afford to put itself in that position once again.
“The certification of SpaceX, hopefully by Dec. 1, is a big event. But if they’re not ready on Dec. 1, we have to stand up and say that, and that’s going to be difficult because I want competition,” Hyten said.
“My fundamental requirement as the commander of Air Force Space Command ... is to make sure that the United States has access to space, assured, all the time. And that means it has to work every time,” Hyten said.
Welsh said SpaceX had been launching rockets, but was behind on some key engineering and design reviews required for the Air Force certification. “It’s a very deliberate process,” he said.
The comments about the need for 100-percent launch success follow last month’s explosion of a SpaceX test rocket. The incident raised concerns among U.S. officials, although the Air Force has declined comment on the consequences of the explosion for the certification process.
The botched test flight involved a Falcon rocket demonstration vehicle known as Falcon 9R that was outfitted with three engines and a prototype landing system the company had been developing to fly its rockets back to the launch site for refurbishment and reuse.
A government official said the explosion could slow the ongoing U.S. certification process because the reason needed to be understood. The destroyed rocket was different than the Falcon 9, but involved the same basic engine, the official said.
NASA on Tuesday awarded both Boeing and SpaceX separate contracts to build commercially owned and operated “space taxis” to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, ending U.S. dependence on Russia for rides. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal, editing by G Crosse)