SpaceX, a new competitor for launching U.S. Air Force satellites, continues to have the confidence of a key service official despite losing two non-military rockets in the past 14 months.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Sept. 7 that she expects SpaceX will be able to identify and fix the cause of the latest Falcon 9 failure. The rocket, which was carrying the AMOS-6 commercial communications satellite, blew up Sept. 1 during a test on the company’s launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
The incident “doesn’t give me pause [about SpaceX’s abilities], but it’s a reminder that this is a really tough business,” James told reporters at the Pentagon. “Things can go wrong, which is a good reason why we have two pathways to space” in the form of SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA), which is a joint venture formed by Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Boeing [BA].
SpaceX has said that the recent “anomaly” seems to have originated around the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. The company is investigating, with oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration and participation by NASA, the Air Force and other industry experts.
The previous loss occurred when a Falcon 9 carrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded soon after launch in June 2015. SpaceX blamed a flawed piece of supporting hardware, or strut, and said it would stop using it.
The Air Force in May 2015 approved the Falcon 9 to compete against ULA to send military satellites into space. The certification capped a two-year effort to break the monopoly of ULA, which has launched national security satellites on Atlas and Delta rockets since 2006.
James made her SpaceX comments at a press briefing on her recent trip to several countries in Asia. In India, which is considering buying new fighter jets, she touted the capabilities of the F/A-18s and F-16s proposed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, respectively. In Indonesia, she assured officials that they will receive F-16s in a timely way through the Department of Defense’s excess defense articles program.
James also told reporters that various Air Force air, space and cyberspace assets supported a major interagency drug-interdiction operation in the Caribbean in late August. During the five-day event, authorities seized more than 6,100 kilograms of cocaine and arrested 17 traffickers. James said she plans to look for more such opportunities to train airmen while supporting counter-drug and counter-transnational crime missions.