The U.S. Air Force and launch Startup Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) have finally hammered out a road map to certification of the untested Falcon 9 Version 1.1 launch vehicle that is expected to compete to put sensitive Pentagon payloads into orbit.

This is the latest step by the Air Force to end the United Launch Alliance (ULA) monopoly on lofting such payloads. Crafted in 2006 from the competing launch businesses of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, ULA manages and operates the Atlas V and Delta IV Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) fleets.

Certification for the Falcon 9 V1.1 could be approved as soon as 2015, based on the requirements laid out in a June 7 cooperative research and development agreement (Crada) between the Air Force and SpaceX. This Crada specifically covers only the Falcon 9 V1.1 launch system, and does not include the also unproven Falcon Heavy.

The Air Force says it “anticipates entering into additional Cradas with SpaceX to evaluate its Falcon Heavy rocket and with Orbital Sciences [Corp.] for its Antares launch vehicle.” Both the Falcon 9 V1.1 and Falcon Heavy will rely on the new Merlin 1D engine, which has yet to fly.

SpaceX officials encountered an unexpected drop in pressure in the Merlin 1C engine during an Oct. 8, 2012, launch on the baseline Falcon 9 rocket. Though the primary payload was delivered for NASA intact, Orbcomm lost an experimental satellite. SpaceX spokeswoman Christana Ra says the company classifies the mission as “successful” because the primary mission was achieved.

However, an investigation discovered that a breach in one of the 1C engine casings allowed an escape of hot gas and prompted a secondary breach in the direction of the main fuel line. As a result, the Falcon 9 automatically opted against an engine restart, forcing the rocket to deliver the Orbcomm satellite into an unsuitably low orbit.

“We don't consider this to be a manufacturing or design flaw,” Ra says. “During testing, the main combustion chamber on this engine experienced a unique combination of environments compared to the other engines. While none of these observations exceeded demonstrated qualification margins, the combination of these environments likely exacerbated the material flaw in the engine's jacket.”

Ra says SpaceX is “not concerned about having the same issue,” on the 1D engine, which undergoes a different production process.

The first Falcon 9 V1.1 mission to boost Canada's small, experimental Cassiope payload, built by MDA Corp., has been repeatedly delayed and is set to be followed this year by launch of an SES payload, Ra says. According to the company's manifest, six V1.1 rockets are set for delivery by year-end, an ambitious goal. Cassiope will be the first to launch from SpaceX's new pad at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. Ra says the pad is “in good shape . . . . Vandenberg is basically ready for launch.”

The certification process was implemented in 2011 to allow for competition from contractors seeking to enter the market. “While certification does not guarantee a contract award, it does enable a company to compete for launch contracts,” says the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), which oversees procurement of satellites and boosters for the Air Force.

To win initial certification for the Falcon 9 V1.1, SpaceX will have to complete three successful flights, two of them consecutively; they are slated for 2014 and 2015. At least one of these will include the first of two EELV-class missions for the SMC. Certification criteria include a full evaluation of the vehicle's design, reliability, process maturity and safety systems. The SMC says it will also evaluate “manufacturing and operations, systems engineering, risk management and launch facilities.”

In parallel with the certification process, SpaceX won a contract last year with the Air Force to launch NASA's Dscovr (Deep Space Climate Observatory) under the Orbital/Suborbital Program-3. For the mission, SpaceX must launch the Earth and space weather satellite to the Sun-Earth Lagrangian point L1, 930,000 mi. from Earth.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is continuing negotiations with ULA on the first “block buy” of EELV cores. The Air Force plans to save money by contracting for 36 booster cores at once rather than the earlier strategy of buying one launch's worth at a time. These talks are slated to wrap up by October.

Separately, 14 cores that are expected to be needed in the next five years have been set aside for possible competitors, should they become certified during that time. If SpaceX is not certified in time for a January 2015 competition, the Air Force plans to assign those launches to ULA and reassess SpaceX's readiness for competition a year later and so on.

Though the U.S. government approved the ULA monopoly in 2006 because of a lack of sufficient work to keep both Lockheed Martin and Boeing's businesses afloat, a resurgence in space activity could potentially sustain multiple EELV-class providers. With a declining defense budget and consistent delays to satellite projects, though, some Air Force officials are concerned that work will slow at the end of the decade, risking repetition of the mistakes made 10 years ago that led to the formation of the U.S. launch monopoly.