The U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) commander has signed off on a first-ever detailed guide for certifying companies seeking to compete for U.S. government launches.

This document, long awaited by would-be launch contenders, will kick off a series of events that could lead to a more competitive launch market. The guide will provide a detailed outline of what Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski says are the “mechanics” that new launch market entrants must follow to gain certification to loft various payload types, from experimental systems that are more risk-tolerant to high-cost monoliths such as the Space-Based Infrared System that require foolproof mission assurance.

The guide will not be publicly disseminated, she says, owing to sensitive data therein protected by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, she says.

In the coming weeks, SMC plans to hold an industry day for potential entrants, who will be asked to provide a statement of intent, including the company’s reliability, accuracy and selected orbits to which they can launch, to kick off the certification process.

This is an opening for Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), developing its Falcon 9, to eventually go head to head against United Launch Alliance (ULA), the Boeing/Lockheed Martin joint venture that currently holds a monopoly over large-class Air Force launches. Additionally, an Alliant Techsystems/EADS Astrium team and Orbital Sciences Corp. are expected to compete.

After submitting the statement of intent, the companies will work with SMC to develop a certification path. Though the Air Force will help guide certification, the service is not planning to throw development dollars at designing the rockets, as it did with the Atlas V and Delta IV a decade ago. “We really want to have [the competitors] leverage as much of their commercial activity as we can,” Pawlikowski says. “The whole idea of having competition is what has got us interested in doing this new entrant criteria. But we want competitors that have a viable business base.”

The contracting vehicles now used to buy Minotaur launches are expiring, opening an opportunity for new competitors to win government work.

Pawlikowski says the center is working on developing the request for proposals for the orbital-suborbital small and medium spacelift program (OSP-3) contract, which is expected to provide support for activities of the Space Development and Test Wing at Kirtland AFB, N.M., including launches requiring all sizes of boosters.

Once only focused on those two classes, Pawlikowski says she is adding a third one dedicated to new entrants; these missions will not be accessible to ULA. “We will target for that contract missions that are more risk-tolerant than our big missions,” Pawlikowski says. One option proposed by the Pentagon in the fiscal 2012 budget is to set aside $135 million to launch NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory, a mission requiring an upper-stage coast and reaching the L1 Earth-Sun Lagrangian point roughly 932,000 mi. away.

Lawmakers are split on whether to support the proposal, but if it passes Pawlikowski says she intends to compete that mission in fiscal 2012, which concludes next Sept. 30.

While gaining experience is one way to get certified, there are other options. “The more history they have, obviously the more confidence we will have,” Pawlikowski says. “But if they don’t have a lot of history, then we are more than willing to dig into their technical data” for verification.

Ultimately, SMC plans to award indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts to multiple vendors in each OSP-3 category if there are enough companies certified.