The Air Force said Jan. 7 it is delaying its goal of certifying Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) for national security space launches to no later than mid-2015 after the two parties missed a critical Dec. 31 deadline.
“Although certification was not awarded as of the end of December…we expect to certify SpaceX no later than mid-year,” Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (AFSMC) chief Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves said through a spokesman. The Air Force did respond to specific questions as to why the two parties missed the Dec. 31 deadline.
The process of getting SpaceX certified for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) missions is known as new entrant certification, which is key as it makes the company eligible to be awarded contracts. Currently, only EELV incumbent United Launch Alliance (ULA) is certified to perform EELV missions, which consist of launches for the Defense Department and intelligence community (IC). The Air Force in July issued a request for proposals (RFP) for its first competitive procurement of a space launch in 10 years–a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) mission known as NROL-79. The launch is scheduled for mid-2016.
In light of the missed Dec. 31 certification goal, Air Force Secretary Deborah James directed an independent team to review the service’s new entrant certification process, though a service spokesman insisted this is a “periodic review” and not one prompted by the missed deadline.
“As with other periodic looks we’ve done over the years, we will further assess whether we can streamline and improve the certification process while protecting mission assurance,” Air Force spokesman Capt. Chris Hoyler said Jan. 7. “We believe our certification process is sound.”
Hoyler said the purpose of the independent review is to capture “lessons learned” so the Air Force can “enhance competition” for launch services. The Air Force did not respond to specific questions about the composition of the independent team. SpaceX did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Hoyler said SpaceX has satisfied over 80 percent of the certification criteria. The certification processes and standards developed in response to major failures in the late ’90s, Hoyler said, have helped ensure no major failures in national security launches since 1999.
SpaceX and the Air Force signed a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) in June 2013 as part of the company’s effort to be certified for EELV missions. As part of the CRADA, SpaceX was required to perform at least three successful flights of a common launch vehicle configuration to be considered for EELV missions. The company said in July the Air Force certified Falcon 9 as having conducted three successful flights. SpaceX said in a July statement it expected to satisfy the remaining certification requirements later in 2014. The company did not respond Jan. 7 when asked if it completed its end of these certification requirements.
SpaceX and the Air Force are currently in litigation over the service awarding ULA a multi-billion dollar “block buy” of 36 launch cores. Michael Listner, attorney and founding partner of Space Law and Policy solutions in New Hampshire, told sister publication Defense Daily Jan. 7, instead of amending its original lawsuit against the Air Force, the company might get better results from filing another lawsuit against the service over potentially missing out on NROL-79 due to missing the Dec. 31 certification deadline.
Listner said SpaceX amending its original lawsuit against the Air Force over the block buy might agitate the service and would also be subject to a judge’s approval.
“If they are not certified because of this delay, they may be able to file a fresh suit in federal court,” Listner said. “That might actually have more teeth and get more traction than trying to amend their complaint in the current lawsuit.”
SpaceX would not say Jan. 7 if it planned further legal action against the Air Force following the announcement of the certification delay. ULA is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Boeing [BA].