Spaceflight Insider

USAF to swap ULA Atlas V for SpaceX Falcon 9 as X-37B launcher

USAF X-37B space plane at Edwards Air Force Base in California photo credit USAF posted on SpaceFlight Insider - Copy

USAF X-37B space plane at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Photo Credit: USAF

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A report, written by Reuters’ Irene Klotz and appearing on U.S. News, has stated that Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has won the contract to launch the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B. 

According to the report, the secretive spaceplane could carry out its first flight on the ‘Full Thrust’ Falcon 9 as early as August – just two months from now.

The announcement comes at a time when United Launch Alliance (ULA), International Launch Services, Arianespace, and other launch service providers struggle to keep pace with the Hawthorne, California-based NewSpace firm who has launched seven of their Falcon 9 rockets from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A in 2017 so far. The company has stated that it is working toward a launch rate of about two flights per month.

Boeing’s X-37B spaceplane has been launched four times in the past, all of them atop United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 501 rockets from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41. This development was announced during the U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s testimony to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.

“[The X-37B is] a reusable vehicle and will be going up again on top of a SpaceX launcher in August, and I think that the chief has a CubeSat as well,” Secretary Wilson said. “So [there are] getting smaller, able to be put on multiple different platforms, and [there are] some exciting things happening in commercial space that bring the opportunity for assured access to space at a very competitive price.”

The X-37B completed its first landing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida early last month (May 2017) and was promptly wheeled to one of the former Orbiter Processing Facilities where it will be serviced and prepared for its next mission.

Although similar to NASA’s now retired fleet of shuttles, as well as having a payload bay like one of the space agency’s orbiters, the X-37B is automated and carries out missions that have lasted months or, as with the classified spaceplane’s last mission, almost two years – the OTV-4 flight spent approximately 717 days and 20 hours in orbit.

The originating report was written by Klotz, Joseph White, and Steve Orlofsky and can be viewed here: SpaceX Wins Launch of U.S. Air Force X-37B Space Plane

Video courtesy of U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich



Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

The dominoes are starting to fall towards SpaceX. ULA still has their un-competed bloc buy contract. Don’t SpaceX need the longer fairing for their F-9?

Nope, fits in standard fairing.

This steamroller has been coming for a while (now it’s here).

Dick Eagleson

Excellent story Jason. The video clip was especially interesting and yours is the only site to put this excerpt up so far as I know.


ULA still has some missions to go on the block buy contract, but those should all be completed within 30 months. The X-37B can launch within the standard Falcon 9 payload fairing. That is good as SpaceX only makes a single fairing size at this point. Perhaps the Falcon Heavy will get a bigger fairing at some point.

Interesting paradigm shift here. Although it happened when SpaceX received military contracts ~a year ago. But this is different in that it is the Air Force’s special toy.

As an economist, I would say this is a fairly large market disruption for what has been heretofore a closed market. Very telling shift, in that DOD begins to trust SpaceX with their favorite toys.

I keep watching the competitors adapt to SpaceX’s direct-market model and view it as a huge positive for the industry as a whole.

Although this is being interpreted as a purely strategic move, I wonder if it could be more tactical. Could it be that USAF needs the OTV up there asap,,and Spacex alone has the capabilty available?

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