The Air Force is examining several anomalies that occurred during Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s three civilian space flights as part of its review of billionaire Elon Musk’s quest to launch military satellites.
While none of the irregularities caused the missions to fail, the Air Force is reviewing corrective actions as it weighs certification of SpaceX. Musk’s company wants a piece of a $67.6 billion Pentagon program for satellite launches, a market held by a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the government’s top two contractors.
“These anomalies are continuing to be discussed with SpaceX,” the service said in briefing paper sent May 20 to Rep. Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic panel. His congressional district is near the one where the joint venture, Centennial, Colorado-based United Launch Alliance, assembles booster rockets.
The Air Force paper provides insight into the issues the service is assessing as it considers whether Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX should be allowed to launch military satellites, which “have significantly different and generally more stringent launch vehicle requirements than” missions for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, according to the paper.
SpaceX currently ferries cargo to the International Space Station under a $1.6 billion NASA contract.
In a cover letter to Rogers, Air Force Secretary Deborah James wrote that, “to date, SpaceX and its Falcon 9 v1.1 launch system have made the most progress toward certification.” As for other potential competitors, “we have received statements of intent but progress is slower,” she said.
The Air Force provided Bloomberg News with a redacted copy of the May 20 letter and briefing paper in response to a request for the release of official records.
Lawmakers including Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who leads the defense appropriations subcommittee, are pressing for competition as fast as possible. Durbin’s panel proposed $125 million to bankroll an additional launch over 14 originally designated. The new flight would be open to competition.
Three lawmakers, including Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican whose district includes United Launch’s headquarters, wrote to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on July 15, asking him to disclose all anomalies on SpaceX missions following news reports of issues. Republican Rep. Mo Brooks, who represents the Alabama district where the company’s rockets are assembled, also signed the letter.
Air Force officials have said they anticipate the review of SpaceX launches and possible certification will be completed by May 2015. The company needs certification to win a contract to launch a National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite in 2016. The Air Force last week opened up the launch to bidding – the first competitive one in a decade. SpaceX can bid on it while the certification process continues.
The Air Force paper to Rogers outlines the certification status and “the most significant flight anomalies from the three flights being considered to meet the certification criteria.”
One occurred during a September 2013 launch, when a second- stage rocket engine failed to re-ignite. A second anomaly was a stage-one fire on the “Octaweb” engine structure during a flight in December.
The third irregularity involved what the Air Force called “unacceptable fuel reserves at engine cutoff of the stage 2 second burnoff” in a January mission.
The service said there were other “lesser but still significant flight and ground operations and observations in discussion with SpaceX.” It said it was working with the company to help “improve the probability” of certification by December. That’s when the National Reconnaissance Office wants to award the satellite launch contract.
In a written statement to Durbin’s panel after a March hearing, SpaceX said previous mission anomalies had been resolved. It didn’t identify the causes, which it said were “proprietary.”
Without addressing the specifics of the May 20 letter, SpaceX spokesman John Taylor said in an an e-mail that the service “has officially certified as successful the three flights.” He said SpaceX and the Air Force expect to complete the certification process later this year.
If allowed to compete for the launches, “SpaceX will provide the nation with efficient and highly reliable launch services, while saving taxpayers billions of dollars, a goal that everyone should fully support,” Taylor said.
Air Force spokesman Maj. Eric Badger said in an email that the service is working hard to get the company certified.
“SpaceX believes they will be done by the end of 2014,” Badger said. “The Air Force believes that’s an extremely aggressive schedule.”
In its briefing paper, the Air Force expressed concerns about whether SpaceX can demonstrate the capability to integrate payloads vertically, instead of the horizontal approach the company uses for commercial and NASA missions.
SpaceX must demonstrate the vertical integration capability to win the spy satellite contract, according to a memo to Pentagon weapons buyer Frank Kendall from his director for program assessments.
U.S. military payloads “are neither designed nor tested to be horizontally integrated into a rocket and SpaceX currently does not perform vertical integration,” the Air Force wrote. It said the company is planning to build that capability.
Badger said the Air Force wasn’t able to comment on the anomalies under review or whether it thinks SpaceX can achieve the required vertical capability.
That’s “due to some of the information being proprietary and other parts being linked to” a lawsuit that SpaceX filed against the Air Force.
SpaceX sued in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in April, asserting the Air Force illegally excluded it from the contract for as many as 36 launches awarded to the Lockheed-Boeing team in December.
Rogers said in an emailed statement that the Air Force’s May 20 response to him “makes clear why the new entrant certification process is robust and deliberate” when multibillion-dollar satellites are launched.
“While I look forward to real competition to bring down launch prices, it is clear from this response that we have a ways to go,” he said.