LOS ANGELES — Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and the U.S. Air Force are “days away” from agreeing on the details of a certification plan that would enable the private company to compete for national security payload launch contracts with the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

The plan, begun in 2011 as part of the Air Force’s drive to reduce the cost of space launch, comes as SpaceX achieves a critical milestone on the path to its first two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle-class (EELV) missions for the Space and Missile Systems Center. These missions, targeted for 2014 and 2015, will go part way to proving SpaceX’s credentials to compete with incumbent United Launch Alliance for high-value missions such as GPS launches, but the final certification criteria include a guide for more substantial checks and evaluations that will be agreed to in the next few days.

“We have had quite a bit of work done to develop a detailed certification plan,” says Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center Commander Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski. “We have a new entry certification guide and they have submitted a letter of intent. We worked with them to get into the real nitty-gritty to implement that guide and we’re within a week if not days of being prepared to close that plan,” she adds. Agreeing on the plan will allow the start of the first follow-on steps such as performance engineering reviews, Pawlikowski adds.

She was speaking just before attending an executive review for the Dscovr (Deep Space Climate Observatory), one of two missions awarded in 2012 under the Orbital/Suborbital Program-3 (OSP-3), a contract for the U.S. Air Force Rocket Systems Launch Program. OSP-3 was the first Air Force contract specifically designed to provide new entrants to the EELV program an opportunity to demonstrate their vehicle capabilities. SpaceX has “reached the first milestone,” Pawlikowski adds. The second mission is the Air Force’s Space Test Program (STP-2) satellite.

For the Dscovr mission, scheduled for late 2014, a Falcon 9 will be used to launch an Earth and space weather satellite to the Sun-Earth Lagrange point L1, a location approximately 930,000 mi. from Earth. The Dscovr program, which will provide warning of space weather events, is a joint effort between the Air Force, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The STP-2 mission, which is targeted for launch on a Falcon Heavy in mid-2015, includes two space vehicles: the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate-2 (Cosmic-2), designed to monitor climate behaviors; and the Demonstration and Science Experiments (DSX), which will conduct radiation research.

SpaceX says that in addition to preparing for the two OSP-3 missions and additional flights of the Falcon 9 and Heavy variants, it must undergo extensive audits of its spacecraft control and operations software along with reviews of launch site operations prior to certification. Even if the upcoming OSP-3 missions are conducted flawlessly, Pawlikowski says, “they do need to be certificated before they can apply for any national security missions.”