SpaceX One Step Closer to AF EELV Contracts & Gets FAA OK for Texas Launch Site
SpaceX announced today (July 11) that the Air Force has certified that the company's Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket has successfully completed three flights. That is one of the steps required before SpaceX can be awarded contracts from the Air Force for launches within the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Separately, on Wednesday it received approval from the FAA to conduct launches from a new launch site it plans to build in Texas.
The Air Force decision comes at a time when the SpaceX-Air Force relationship is rather strained. The company is suing the Air Force because it awarded a block-buy contract to United Launch Alliance (ULA) last year for 36 EELV cores on a sole-source basis rather than allowing SpaceX to compete. The Air Force and the Justice Department filed a motion last week asking the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to dismiss the suit.
Today's brief announcement by SpaceX is carefully worded to say that the Air Force certified that the Falcon 9 system successfully completed three flights, not that the company has been certified to win EELV contracts. While asserting that it is "already qualified to compete for EELV missions," SpaceX said today it "must also be certified by the Air Force before any contract can be awarded..." The statement concludes by saying that it expects to satisfy the remaining requirements by the end of this year.
SpaceX and the Air Force signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) in June 2013 that details the requirements SpaceX must meet to win contracts for EELV-class launches of national security satellites. They include an evaluation of the Falcon 9's flight history, vehicle design, reliability, process maturity, safety systems, manufacturing and operations, systems engineering, risk management, and launch facilities. Achieving three successful flights of a common configuration of the Falcon 9 is part of that evaluation.
In February 2014, the Air Force certified the first successful flight under the CRADA. That launch, of a Canadian science satellite and five smaller satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base, took place on September 29, 2013 and was the first of the Falcon 9 v1.1. The other two flights, on December 3, 2013 and January 6, 2014, now also have been certified as successful. Both of those were from Cape Canaveral and launched commercial communications satellites for SES and Thailand, respectively.
Separately, on July 9 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved SpaceX's plans to conduct launches from a new launch site the company plans to build south of Brownsville, TX. The Record of Decision provides FAA's final environmental determination and approval to support issuing launch licenses and/or experimental permits to launch the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy (still in development) "and a variety of reusable suborbital vehicles" from 68.9 acres adjacent to the village of Boca Chica. The location is in Cameron County, TX, and is approximately 3 miles north of the U.S./Mexico border. The approval is for up to 12 "commercial launch operations" per year.
Meanwhile, SpaceX is getting ready for another attempt to launch six Orbcomm second generation (OG2) communications satellites on Monday, July 14. That launch has been delayed several times for a variety of technical or weather-related reasons.
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