A key lawmaker vowed to maintain a United States heavy launch capability to avoid a gap between the retirement of United Launch Alliance‘s (ULA) Delta IV rocket and the potential certification of Space Exploration Technology Corp.‘s (SpaceX) Falcon Heavy launcher.

“I can’t wait for you to be certified on your intermediate launches as well as your heavy lift launches,” House Armed Services (HASC) strategic forces subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) told SpaceX President and CEO Gwynne Shotwell Tuesday during a hearing. “We’re going to keep some kind of heavy lift capacity until you’re certified…that is in our nation’s interest.” 

Delta IV rocket from a GPS IIF launch in February. Photo: ULA.
Delta IV rocket from a GPS IIF launch. Photo: ULA.

Rogers read a news report during the hearing, supposedly from April 2014, quoting Shotwell saying Falcon Heavy would fly in early 2015. Shotwell testified that, after she made that remark, SpaceX slowed Falcon Heavy development to focus on the single core Falcon 9 and because Falcon Heavy customers were to start around mid 2016. Shotwell did not say when she expected Falcon Heavy certification. SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

ULA CEO Tory Bruno told the House panel Tuesday he planned on retiring the Delta IV launch vehicle in the 2018-2019 timeframe because, at between $400 million to $600 million per launch, it simply wasn’t competitive on an open market. ULA uses a Delta IV variant called the Delta IV Heavy for launches like spy satellites. The Defense Department wants to infuse additional competition into the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program of military and intelligence community (IC) launches moving forward.

Though ULA will retire the Delta IV, Bruno added he promised the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the Air Force, the primary customers of heavy lift launches, he’d maintain the Delta IV Heavy as long as they require. NASA, for its part, on Wednesday contracted a July 2018 Delta IV Heavy launch for $389 million.

Much of the conversation between Rogers and Shotwell centered on their disagreement of how long it would take to certify Falcon Heavy for military launches in the EELV program. Shotwell said it could take between 14-16 months, based on the company’s experience certifying its Falcon 9 rocket, which she said began in earnest in April 2014. Rogers called this “optimistic” and said it would take between 24-36 months. SpaceX anticipates Falcon 9 certification by June.

SpaceX has yet to fly its Falcon Heavy rocket, but has five flights on its upcoming manifest, including an Air Force mission called STP-2. Falcon Heavy will be three Falcon 9 rockets capable of lifting a total of 117,000 pounds into orbit. Delta IV Heavy can lift 62,540 pounds into low earth orbit (LEO), according to ULA.

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