Official Washington was generally quiet the last week in May, with the federal government closed for Memorial Day and Congress out of town. But the space community was full of activity, with the Air Force and NASA delivering major news to SpaceX and Boeing.
The Air Force announced May 26 that it has approved SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to compete against United Launch Alliance (ULA) to send military satellites into space. The certification caps a two-year effort to break the monopoly of ULA, which has launched national security satellites on Atlas and Delta rockets since 2006.
“This is a very important milestone for the Air Force and the Department of Defense,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in a statement. “SpaceX’s emergence as a viable commercial launch provider provides [the military] the opportunity to compete launch services for the first time in almost a decade. Ultimately, leveraging of the commercial space market drives down cost to the American taxpayer and improves our military’s resiliency.”
SpaceX’s first chance to vie for defense missions is expected in June, when the Air Force plans to release a request for proposals to launch Lockheed Martin-built Global Positioning System Block III (GPS III) navigation satellites. Founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, SpaceX has already won major contracts from the commercial satellite industry and NASA.
NASA’S COMMERCIAL CREW PROGRAM
Separately, NASA took a step closer to restoring the ability of the United States to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The agency announced May 27 that it has issued a task order to Boeing to conduct the first human flight to the station using the company’s new Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 capsule.
Boeing said it demonstrated to NASA that its capsule is ready to proceed to assembly, integration and testing. “This critical milestone moves us another step closer in fully maturing the CST-100 design,” said John Mulholland, vice president of commercial programs for Boeing Space Exploration.
NASA said it expects to make a similar award for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule later this year. Boeing and SpaceX are developing their respective vehicles under Commercial Crew Program contracts they received from NASA in September 2014. The program aims to begin flights to space in 2017 and end America’s sole reliance on Russian spacecraft for station access.
“Determination of which company will fly its mission to the station first will be made at a later time,” NASA said.
Boeing’s CST-100 will lift off on an Atlas 5 and return to Earth using parachute and airbag systems. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will be launched on a Falcon 9 and land using parachutes and propulsive soft-landing systems.