The U.S. Air Force’s work to determine whether the Sept. 29 first launch of Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket will count toward the company’s requirements for certification to compete for government launches is being delayed by the U.S. government shutdown.

Mystery still surrounds what happened when Hawthorne, Calif. -based SpaceX commanded a restart of the upper stage engine following the drop-off of a small Canadian science satellite and three experimental payloads into polar low Earth orbit. Company founder Elon Musk has refuted suggestions that a rupture occurred with the upper stage.

The Air Force’s delay in assessing the mission’s results is due to the government shutdown, which began Oct. 1. Much of the technical work underpinning the Air Force’s space procurement programs is handled by The Aerospace Corp. The company imposed a work stoppage for 2,000 of its 3,500 employees on Oct. 3 in accordance with direction from the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center. During the shutdown, The Aerospace Corp. is only authorized to continue mission critical tasks such as work supporting upcoming launches and addressing flight operations.

“As part of the USAF Certification Agreement with SpaceX, this launch was a major milestone as one of three launches required,” says Col. Kathleen Cook, an Air Force Space Command spokeswoman. “The Air Force is completing the formal process of determining the certification of this flight as the first of the three required SpaceX launches.”

SpaceX is required to perform three successful launches of the Falcon 9 v1.1 with its new Merlin 1D engine — two of which must be consecutive – before the Air Force will consider it for certification to fly “Class A” government payloads; these are the most critical satellites that conduct missions such as missile warning and protected communications. The company must also submit to various technical reviews and audits to become certified to compete against its rival, United Launch Alliance, for government work.

Cook notes that the post-flight data review could take “several months” because of the shutdown.

Meanwhile, SpaceX asserts that despite an anomaly in restarting the upper-stage engine, the mission was a success and will be the first of the three needed for Air Force certification.

SpaceX’s certification pathway includes three successful flights of the upgraded Falcon 9 vehicle with a payload fairing, two of which must be flown consecutively, says company spokeswoman Emily Shanklin. “Our successful launch on Sept. 29 marked the first of these three flights. Second stage reignition was not part of the criteria for success because it was an internal test objective only, not a mission objective.”

Like most commercial communications spacecraft, many of the Air Force’s national security satellites operate in geosynchronous orbit some 36,000 km above the Earth, making SpaceX’s ability to deliver payloads to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) key to competing with ULA.

However, last month’s upper-stage engine anomaly did not stop SpaceX’s first GTO customer, Luxembourg-based fleet operator SES, from shipping its SES-8 communications satellite to Cape Canaveral, Fla., last week in preparation for launch atop the next Falcon 9.

Next customer

“Since SES is the next customer on the Falcon 9 manifest, SES’s engineering team is working closely with SpaceX to understand why SpaceX’s new-version Falcon 9 didn’t perform as planned during its Sept. 29 flight, which was to demonstrate reignition of its upper stage,” SES spokesman Yves Feltes says. The mission also proved the company’s nine new core-stage Merlin 1D engines in a new “Octaweb” configuration, considerably longer fuel tanks and a wider payload fairing. However, “the ability of the Falcon 9 upper stage to perform a second ignition and burn is a necessary feature for launches into geostationary transfer orbit and is therefore required for the SES-8 mission,” Feltes said.

Shanklin says engineers are still reviewing data from the Sept. 29 mission and the company is now planning an early November launch of SES-8.

Built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., the 3,200-kg (7,000-lb.) spacecraft originally was scheduled to launch in the first quarter of this year.

“We are still reviewing the data, but we believe we understand the issue and we are confident we will be able to make the necessary adjustments before the next flight,” Shanklin said Oct. 9.

Feltes said the U.S. government shutdown has thus far not affected the SES-8 mission, and a new launch date will be announced “as soon as available.”