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SpaceX to Compete for Air Force Launches This Year


SpaceX says its Falcon 9 v1.1 medium-class launcher is expected to receive U.S. Air Force approval this year to compete against United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets for launches of sensitive national security payloads.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell says Falcon 9 certification is expected this year, "in time to compete for the first round" of Air Force contracts to be awarded in 2014 under the service's Evolved, Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.

“We anticipate awards in the fourth quarter of calendar year 2014," she told Aviation Week & Space Technology in a Feb. 27 interview.

Last month, SpaceX moved a step closer to bidding for U.S. national security launch contracts when the Air Force announced that a Sept. 29 debut of the new Falcon 9 v1.1 would count as the first of three launches needed to qualify the rocket.

The announcement followed a Dec. 19 agreement between the Air Force and ULA for a bulk purchase of up to 50 rocket cores under the EELV program, 14 of which will be open for competition with SpaceX.

Shotwell said in addition to three successful Falcon 9 v1.1 launches required by the Air Force, SpaceX is dealing with “much stricter” requirements than those imposed on Boeing and Lockheed Martin when they sought Air Force certification for Delta and Atlas launch vehicles more than a decade ago.

Beyond that, she said SpaceX is subject to a comparable level of government scrutiny.

"We have engineering review boards, which are like design reviews for every box, every element of software," she said "We have audits and reviews of our launch site, of our production, of our quality system, so it's not just the three flights. It's getting through very detailed knowledge and insight on how the vehicle was designed, how we incorporate changes and make sure the Air Force understands the system at a detailed level, so they have confidence in it."

With plans to compete with ULA for launches of heavier payloads in the coming years, SpaceX is also preparing to test and qualify the new Falcon Heavy launch vehicle in 2015.

Although it was initially slated to debut this year, SpaceX founder, CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk says the company's production schedule is too tight to support a test flight of the heavy-lift rocket from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., in 2014.

“We need to find three additional cores that we could produce, send them through testing and then fly without disrupting our launch manifest,” Musk said in a Feb. 20 interview. “I'm hopeful we'll have Falcon Heavy cores produced approximately around the end of the year. But just to get through test and qualification, I think it's probably going to be sometime early next year when we launch.”

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