SpaceX’s Falcon 9 breaks EELV monopoly
It has been a long time coming for Hawthorne, California-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX ) — but that day has arrived. The company’s highly-successful Falcon 9 booster has been approved to actively compete under the United States Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Air Force stated that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 v1.1 launch vehicle could be certified to fly missions for the U.S. Department of Defense by June.
“This is a very important milestone for the Air Force and the Department of Defense,” said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James. “SpaceX’s emergence as a viable commercial launch provider provides the opportunity to compete launch services for the first time in almost a decade. Ultimately, leveraging of the commercial space market drives down cost to the American taxpayer and improves our military’s resiliency.”
SpaceX is now one of two launch providers certified for these types of missions, with United Launch Alliance (ULA) as the other. SpaceX’s first opportunity to exercise this new ability to compete is expected to be when the Air Force releases a Request for Proposal for GPS III launch services, currently planned for June, according to the U.S. Air Force.
“This is an important step toward bringing competition to National Security Space launch. We thank the Air Force for its confidence in us and look forward to serving it well,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and CEO, in the statement from the Air Force.
Musk has waged a long-running campaign to have his firm’s Falcon 9 booster be allowed to compete under EELV.
Initially, Musk had been told that the F9 would have to complete three reviewed flights successfully. To date, the Falcon 9 has only encountered a single anomaly during its 18 flights and even that only caused the loss of the secondary payload, with the mission’s primary objective — sending a Dragon spacecraft filled with cargo for the crew on the International Space Station — a complete success.
In April 2014, Musk issued a lawsuit against the import of the Russian-built RD-180, which was used on one of the two rockets selected under EELV at that time, the Atlas V. He noted that it appeared counter-intuitive that the U.S. should be reliant on a foreign-built rocket engine, especially for national security payloads, when a domestically-produced one, SpaceX’s Merlin, was available instead. This became even more essential after Russia’s military actions in Ukraine.
“The RD-180 is made in Russia by NPO Energomash, which is owned and controlled by the Russian government. The Russian space and defense industries are led by Dmitry Rogozin, the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia. Rogozin is on the United States’ sanctions list as a result of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea,” SpaceX noted at that time.
“To be clear, SpaceX is not seeking to be awarded any launch contracts. We are simply seeking the opportunity to compete — and not just for SpaceX, but for any qualified company. If we compete and we lose, that’s ok too. But to not be given the opportunity to compete at all, especially in light of the Air Force’s stated interest in competition and current dependence on Russia for national security launches, just doesn’t make any sense,” the company stated. Now, more than a year later, SpaceX has won that opportunity.
Musk’s lawsuit caused a temporary injunction on imports of the engine, which was eventually lifted. However, in order to have Musk drop his suit, the U.S. Air Force settled with the billionaire. In return for him dropping the lawsuit, the U.S. Air Force would expedite the review process of the F9 for inclusion under the lucrative EELV contract.
The details of the settlement as provided in a statement from SpaceX are as follows:
The Air Force and SpaceX have reached agreement on a path forward for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program that improves the competitive landscape and achieves mission assurance for national security space launches. Under the agreement, the Air Force will work collaboratively with SpaceX to complete the certification process in an efficient and expedient manner. This collaborative effort will inform the SECAF directed review of the new entrant certification process. The Air Force also has expanded the number of competitive opportunities for launch services under the EELV program while honoring existing contractual obligations. Going forward, the Air Force will conduct competitions consistent with the emergence of multiple certified providers. Per the settlement, SpaceX will dismiss its claims relating to the EELV block buy contract pending in the United States Court of Federal Claims.
Starting in the 1990s, the EELV program was developed originally to assure access to orbit for DoD payloads. This was required when the predicted “boom” of commercial launch providers failed to materialize. Besides increasing reliability, it was also designed to decrease the cost of sending payloads to orbit.
The program was initiated in 1994, according to Vandenberg Air Force Base, and in 1998, the U.S. Air Force awarded contracts to Boeing and to Lockheed Martin as it seemed the commercial satellite industry would grow enough for two providers to make sense. The two companies created their joint venture, ULA, in 2006, making ULA the only certified launch provider for EELV for the last nine years.
Now, after much ado, SpaceX has the opportunity to compete for those contracts as well.
“The certification of SpaceX as a provider for defense space launch contracts is a win for competition,” said U.S. Senator John McCain, in a statement. “Over the last 15 years, as sole-source contracts were awarded, the cost of EELV was quickly becoming unjustifiably high. I am hopeful that this and other new competition will help to bring down launch costs and end our reliance on Russian rocket engines that subsidizes Vladimir Putin and his cronies.”
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