LOS ANGELES — The U.S. Air Force and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) have signed a cooperative research and development agreement (Crada) that will guide the way for a certification plan to enable the private company to compete for U.S. military launches with the Falcon 9 vehicle.

The agreement specifically covers only the Falcon 9 v1.1 launch system, and does not include the more capable — but so far unproven — Falcon Heavy. The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) says it “anticipates entering into additional Cradas with SpaceX to evaluate its Falcon Heavy rocket and with Orbital Sciences for its Antares launch vehicle.”

The move was implemented in 2011 as part of the Air Force’s drive to reduce the cost of space launch, and particularly the costs associated with national security space (NSS) missions.

To date, United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V and Delta IV are the only certified launch vehicles capable of conducting NSS missions.

“While certification does not guarantee a contract award, it does enable a company to compete for launch contracts. Those contracts could be awarded as early as fiscal year 2015, with launch services provided as early as fiscal year 2017,” SMC says.

To win initial certification for the Falcon 9, SpaceX will have to complete three successful flights, two of them consecutively.

At least one of these flights will include the first of two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV)-class missions for SMC.

These missions, targeted for 2014 and 2015, will go part way to proving SpaceX’s credentials to compete with the Falcon 9 and Heavy, but the final certification criteria includes a full evaluation of the vehicle’s design, reliability, process maturity and safety systems.

SMC says it will also evaluate “manufacturing and operations, systems engineering, risk management and launch facilities.”

The initial EELV-class mission is Dscovr (Deep Space Climate Observatory), awarded in 2012 under the Orbital/Suborbital Program-3 (OSP-3), a contract for the U.S. Air Force Rocket Systems Launch Program. 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 about 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 NOAA.

The Air Force adds that once this evaluation is complete and “at least three certification flights” have been satisfactorily monitored, “the SMC commander will make the final determination whether SpaceX has the capability to successfully launch NSS missions using the Falcon 9 v1.1.”