The US Air Force has finally given SpaceX the green light to launch satellites for the Pentagon. The long awaited decision means that Elon Musk’s space company will become a competitor for the United Launch Alliance, who virtually held the monopoly on national security satellite launches.
It took Elon Musk two years of tense negotiations with US military officials before finally earning Pentagon’s approval. In the announcement that was made on Tuesday, the US Air Force acknowledged Space X competitiveness in the space industry and said it is looking forward to the collaboration.
“SpaceX’s emergence as a viable commercial launch provider provides the opportunity to compete launch services for the first time in almost a decade,” said Air Force Secretary Deborah James. It is the first time in Pentagon’s history the monopoly on national security space missions is broken. Until now, only United Launch Alliance, a joint Boeing-Lockheed Martin company, was certified for military and spy satellite launches.
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation’s Falcon 9 Launch System could prove stern competition for United Launch Alliance, as Elon Musk’s satellites are thought to be significantly cheaper. According to some early estimates, SpaceX would charge $100 million for a Falcon 9 rocket, considerably less than the $160 million the Pentagon would pay for an Atlas V aircraft.
Deborah Lee James tried to make this point clear in her statement, explaining that ultimately it will be tax-payers who will benefit most from the competition. And the discounts would better come, since the Air Force spent a lot of money to make sure SpaceX is right for the job. An estimate 150 people and 700 audits were designated to certify the company in a campaign that cost the military more than $60 million.
SpaceX’s victory comes as a logical step after the company gained NASA’s confidence earlier on. Elon Musk signed several contracts with the space agency, allowing him to send privately funded missions to the International Space Stations, carrying both cargo and crew. The billionaire praised the Air Force decision, describing it as “an important step toward bringing competition to national security space launch.”
The approval enjoyed the backing of the US Congress, especially since after 2019 the Air Force will no longer be allowed to use Russian engines for national security launches, as a consequence of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain expressed his hopes that SpaceX’s involvement would allow the Pentagon a greater degree of independence, besides making satellite launches more affordable.
It seems that the Pentagon’s long anticipated decision has already had its first effects on the National Security Space Program. ULA announced last month that it is preparing a more affordable Vulcan rocket, probably fearing that SpaceX would outbid them.
The competition will officially start in June, when the Air Force is expected to issue an order for GPS III satellites.