The U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with United Launch Alliance (ULA) as part of the effort to certify the company’s new Vulcan launch vehicle for National Security Space (NSS) missions, the Air Force said Sept. 27.

The cooperative agreement, which was jointly written by both parties, will facilitate data exchanges and protect proprietary and export-controlled data. The CRADA will be in effect until all of the non-recurring design validation activities for the Vulcan are complete, SMC said.

If the ULA Vulcan launch vehicle is approved for NSS payload mission, it would join only three other certified launch vehicles: ULA’s Delta IV and Atlas V, and Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s (SpaceX) Falcon 9 Upgrade.

“Having multiple certified launch vehicle providers and multiple families of launch systems bolsters U.S. assured access to space,” SMC said.

The agreement will allow the Air Force to evaluate the Vulcan launch system according to the service’s New Entrant Certification Guide (NECG) and also contains a detailed Certification Plan that specified all of the non-recurring activities.

The evaluation will have SMC and ULA look at flight history vehicle design, reliability, process maturity, safety systems, manufacturing and operations, systems engineering, risk management, and launch facilities. SMC will also monitor at least two certification flights to meet the NECG-outlined flight history requirements.

Under the CRADA, ULA will give the U.S. government specific insight into the design and testing of the vehicle during its development. The depth of this insight allows for the number of certification flights to be two. When portions of the non-recurring validation are complete, the SMC commander may make a determination to grant certification, an approach consistent with other CRADAs, the Air Force said.

The Air Force highlighted that certification does not guarantee a contract award, but it does allow a company to be awarded competitive launch services contracts.

“The certification process provides a path for launch-service providers to demonstrate the capability to design, produce, qualify, and deliver a new launch system and provide the mission assurance support required to deliver NSS satellites to orbit,” Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Air Force program executive officer for Space and SMC commander, said in a statement.

“This process ensures that we continue to have assured access to space,” he added.

SMC also noted it anticipates entering into further CRADAs with Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) for its Falcon Heavy rocket and Orbital ATK [OA] for its Next Generation Launcher.