WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top U.S. Air Force official on Wednesday said she is “pretty optimistic” that privately held Space Exploration Technologies will eventually be certified to launch U.S. military satellites into orbit but declined comment on the timing of such an action.
The Air Force is working closely with the company, also known as SpaceX, to satisfy a series of requirements that would allow it to compete to launch costly and sensitive U.S. military and intelligence satellites.
Lieutenant General Ellen Pawlikowski told reporters she could not provide a detailed comment on the SpaceX certification process since a competition for one of those launches is already under way. A contract award for the launch is due in December.
SpaceX was permitted to submit a bid for that specific launch, even before it was certified, but it must meet the Air Force’s requirements to win the contract.
Pawlikowski said the Air Force is continuing to evaluate its options for ending U.S. reliance on the Russian-built RD-180 engine that powers one of two rockets built by a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co.Those two rockets, the Atlas 5 and Delta 4, are the only ones approved to launch U.S. national security satellites, but Pawlikowski said the SpaceX rocket, which is powered by U.S.-built engines, is part of the larger evaluation under way.
She said the outcome of the review would be announced when the Pentagon unveils its fiscal 2016 budget early next year.
Pawlikowski said she was “pretty optimistic” that SpaceX would eventually be certified, noting that the Air Force had already signed a contract with SpaceX to use its Falcon 9 Heavy rocket to launch a less sensitive satellite under the Air Force’s Orbital/Suborbital Program-3 (OSP-3) program.
If the company’s Falcon 9 rocket is certified, it would be able to execute the whole manifest of launches required under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, she said.
SpaceX Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell told a defense conference on Saturday that her company is working closely with the Air Force to complete certification.
“It’s a very tough business. There’s ton of hurdles to get through, but we’re plugging along and (the Air Force) team is plugging along with us,” she told the conference, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Steve Orlofsky