Air Force Secretary Deborah James said she selected former chief of staff and retired Gen. Larry Welch to lead an independent review of the service’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) new entrant certification process.

The process came under fire after the Air Force and new entrant Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) missed a Dec. 31 deadline for certifying the company to become eligible to receive Defense Department launch contracts. Currently, the only certified launch provider is United Launch Alliance (ULA).

A Falcon 9 launch from January 2014. Photo: SpaceX.
A Falcon 9 launch from January 2014. Photo: SpaceX.

The Air Force said earlier this month that SpaceX could be certified as late as mid-2015, though James said Jan. 15 it is “not if, but when” the company will be certified. The service said SpaceX was 80 percent through the certification process.

James credited Welch for heading what she called a successful review of the Air Force’s nuclear weapons program, which was rocked by a cheating scandal that lead to the dismissal of both top officers and lower-ranking airmen. The service is finalizing the details of what the review process will look like, James said.

Though the announcement of the independent review team  came right after the missed deadline announcement, an Air Force spokesman insisted last week this was a “periodic review” and not one prompted by the missed deadline.

“Are there ways that we can streamline, speed up, do things a little bit differently, (while) still…protecting what we call mission assurance,” James told reporters during a briefing with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh. “There could be lessons learned and I want to make sure we have those and implement (them), if it looks appropriate to do so.”

The Air Force has also not ruled out releasing the agreement it made with SpaceX that lays out the road map for EELV certification. The agreement is a new approach called a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA). Signed by the two parties in June 2013, the CRADA facilitates data exchanges and protects proprietary and export-controlled data, according to an Air Force statement. The Air Force has denied previous Defense Daily efforts to acquire the CRADA, citing proprietary info.

The CRADA also enables the Air Force to evaluate SpaceX’s Falcon 9v1.1 launch system according to the service’s New Entrant Certification Guide (NECG). As part of the evaluation, Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (AFSMC) and SpaceX will look at the launch vehicle’s flight history, vehicle design, reliability, process maturity and others. The basic requirements of the CRADA was that SpaceX perform at least three certification flights to meet the flight history requirements outlined in the NECG. SpaceX says it completed its three flight requirement early in 2014.

Once the evaluation is complete, the AFSMC commander, which is now Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, will make the final determination on whether SpaceX has the capability to successfully launch national security missions as part of the EELV program, which cover DoD and intelligence community (IC) launches.

Michael Listner, attorney and founding partner of Space Law and Policy solutions in New Hampshire, said Jan. 15 he understood why the Air Force is reluctant to release the CRADA for numerous reasons, among them being this is the first time the service has attempted certifying a new entrant outside of the EELV program since the program was created in the mid-1990s. As this is the first time, Listner said, it would open the Air Force to intense media and political scrutiny with a program the service is trying to “iron out” itself.

“I don’t think they are trying to hide anything,” Listner said. “If they start releasing documents, every armchair expert is going to be out there. On top of that, you still have the litigation (between the Air Force and SpaceX) going on, and if that got put into the mix, that would create a lot of havoc.”

ULA is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Boeing [BA].