(Adds details on certification process, comments by Air Force officials, background on SpaceX)
By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON, Jan 7 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force said on Wednesday it expects to certify Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX, to compete for launches no later than mid-2015, pushing back its original target date by six months.
The Air Force said on Tuesday it was “close” to certifying a new company to launch large U.S. military satellites, but did not name SpaceX. United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, is at present the only firm certified for such launches.
On Wednesday, the Air Force expanded its statement with details about its review of SpaceX, and said the privately held company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk “is making substantial progress” toward being allowed to compete for contracts under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.
It said SpaceX had met 80 percent of the jointly agreed criteria for certification, and was demonstrating the ability to innovate and resolve outstanding issues.
“We recognize SpaceX for its thorough efforts in moving towards an aggressive certification goal and we will continue to vigorously pursue that certification milestone,” said Lieutenant General Samuel Greaves, commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.
Top Air Force and Pentagon officials want to reintroduce competition to the multibillion-dollar rocket launch business, given concerns about the high cost of launches now provided solely by ULA and its reliance on Russian-built engines to power one of two launch vehicles. SpaceX has also sued the Air Force for its handling of the EELV program.
The Air Force had originally hoped to certify SpaceX by December so it could compete for a contract to launch a National Reconnaissance Office satellite that was due to be awarded by Dec. 31, but said it missed that deadline.
Air Force Secretary Deborah James said the goal was to complete certification as quickly as possible. “Competition in the space launch industry is critical to our national security.”
No announcement has been made about whether that contract award could be delayed, or whether it will be awarded to United Launch Alliance.
Neither SpaceX nor ULA had any immediate comment. An Air Force spokesman declined comment on the NRO launch contract, saying it was still “in source selection.”
The Air Force plans to release the results of an independent review of the certification process by summer 2015, said Captain Chris Hoyler, a spokesman for the Air Force. (Editing by Matthew Lewis)