FORT WASHINGTON, Maryland — It is appearing more and more likely that launch upstart Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) will not be certified to compete for U.S. Air Force launches in time to challenge United Launch Alliance for the upcoming NROL-79 mission, which the service hoped to get on contract this calendar year, according to service space sources.

SpaceX is undergoing reviews to have its Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket certified to compete against the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V and Delta IV families for national security launches; company officials have been optimistic it would be finished by the end of the year in time to compete for the forthcoming NROL-79 mission.

Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the new head of Air Force Space Command, said, "If they are not ready on Dec. 1, we are going to have to stand up and say that" in a Sept. 16 speech at the 2014 Air and Space Conference hosted by the Air Force Association here.

Certification is a requirement to win an Air Force launch competition, though a company may bid while the certification process is underway. To date, only ULA has been certified to launch large national security payloads; the monopoly was formed in 2006 in an attempt to consolidate operations and reduce cost for the legacy Lockheed Martin Atlas and Boeing Delta launch vehicles.

Meanwhile, SpaceX and the Air Force remain locked in a legal dispute about the propriety of the service’s conduct in issuing a 36-rocket launch contract to ULA for years worth of work. The company filed suit claiming it was inappropriately cut out of competing for some of the work, especially in the latter years of the work period, when the Falcon 9 v1.1 is expected to be certified.

Meanwhile, House authorizers are approving a $26.8 million reprogramming for new engine work as part of a larger $4.4 billion reprogramming action for fiscal 2014, according to a Sept. 8 letter from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon (R-California) and Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith (D-Washington) to Pentagon Comptroller Michael McCord. The committee, however, requests more information on the procurement strategy to introduce more competition into this sector.

Momentum for a new engine has built since tensions have mounted with Russia, which builds the Atlas V’s RD180, over its activities in Ukraine.