The Air Force’s upcoming launch of 24 new research-and-development payloads will demonstrate the performance of Space X’s Falcon Heavy launch vehicle for the first time on a Defense Department mission.

The department’s Space Test Program (STP)-2 mission is currently scheduled for launch no earlier than June 24 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) Launch Enterprise Systems Directorate, called it “one of the most challenging missions the SMC has ever launched,” as it is slated to deliver 24 research-and-development satellites to three separate orbits, while employing two side boosters that had previously flown on Space X’s commercial Arabsat 6A mission this past April.

SpaceX launches its Falcon Heavy rocket, and passenger Arabsat-6A, on April 11.
SpaceX launches its Falcon Heavy rocket, and passenger Arabsat-6A, on April 11. (SpaceX0

STP-2 was originally “just an opportunity to characterize the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle for future use by the National Security Space program,” Bongiovi said during a Friday media call. “But now it’s the Air Force’s first launch using previously launched rocket hardware.”

The mission, which also serves as the Falcon Heavy’s third military certification flight, will provide key data for how the service could potentially use reusable rockets to access space with more cost efficiency, he noted. “We are excited about the opportunity that this mission will provide in delivering on-orbit capabilities for our mission partners.”

The 24 space experiments on board include payloads for the Air Force Research Laboratory, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and NASA to provide data for use in weather forecasting, spacecraft propulsion, communication and advanced space technologies.

The Air Force certified the Falcon Heavy for military launches in June 2018, and has awarded two missions – Air Force Space Command (AFSPC)-44 and AFSPC-52 – to the company under the evolved expendable launch vehicle  contract vehicle, which is now called the national security space launch program. Both launches are currently scheduled for late 2020.

The Air Force is completing final integration and launch preparation ahead of the currently scheduled launch date of June 24, said Lt. Col. Ryan Rose, chief of AFSMC’s Small Launch and Targets Division at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.

“We want to make sure we’re ready for a successful launch no earlier than the 24th right now,” she said on the media call.