SpaceX cleared to loft US spy satellites using reusable boosters
Bloomberg August 11, 2022
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has won certification from the Pentagon’s Space Force to use recyclable boosters on its Falcon Heavy rocket to launch top-secret spy satellites, according to the service.
It may give Musk’s insurgent company at least a temporary edge in its latest competition with a Boeing-Lockheed joint venture that once had a monopoly on the Defense Department’s satellite launches.
Qualifying to use money-saving recycled boosters for launches of the nation’s largely classified surveillance, early warning and intelligence satellites solidifies Musk’s relationship with the Pentagon eight years after he sued to break into the military launch market.
By contrast, the Air Force is still reviewing certification for the United Launch Alliance — the joint venture of top defense contractors Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. — to use its Vulcan rocket with a new U.S.-made motor from Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. The alliance plans a test launch in December. The new motor would replace the Russian-made RD-180, which is reliable but was already politically controversial in Washington years before Russia’s current war in Ukraine.
The certification for SpaceX — which was issued in June but not previously disclosed — allows the recyclable first-stage side boosters to be used in sensitive national security launches requiring power performance beyond that of the company’s original Falcon 9. The Space Force found that the “recovery, refurbishment, and launch of SpaceX boosters utilizes well-established processes,” the service said in a statement.
The first classified National Security Space Launch mission using a Falcon Heavy with refurbished boosters is scheduled for sometime from October to December, according to the Space Force. It’s a mission to launch a satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office, which develops and manages spy satellites, according to a previous Space Force statement.
SpaceX, which didn’t reply to a request for comment, has launched more than 100 missions using the Falcon 9 with reusable boosters, most of them commercial.
The reuse of previously flown boosters on Falcon 9 missions has “saved the U.S.Space Force more than $64 million for GPS III missions and avoided additional costs for requirements changes while adding manifest flexibility for both the launch provider and our warfighters,” Walter Lauderdale, chief of the Falcon Division within the Space Systems Command’s “Assured Access to Space” organization, said in a statement.
First announced in 2011, Falcon Heavy is SpaceX’s reusable “super heavy” launch vehicle that lets the closely held company bid on heavier payloads, such as larger commercial satellites as well as national security missions.
Falcon Heavy is basically three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together, tripling the launch power. While one Falcon 9 has nine engines in its first stage, Falcon Heavy has 27. That’s more than five million pounds of thrust at liftoff, which SpaceX says is equivalent to that of about 18 Boeing 747 airplanes.
“The certification to use previously flown side boosters further supports the alternative business model SpaceX has used to break into the space launch market,” said Todd Harrison, a space systems analyst with Meta Aerospace who’s followed SpaceX’s Air Force programs for years.
It’s “a commercially driven innovation that SpaceX pursued before the government even realized it was both achievable and advantageous,” Harrison said. “So I think this certification is an implicit endorsement of SpaceX’s approach to innovation.”
The Air Force is currently reviewing its acquisition strategy of the third competitive phase for 39 national security launches of US military and intelligence satellites in fiscal years 2025 through 2027. United Launch Alliance won 25 of the 42 military launches planned for Phase 2 through fiscal 2024, with the other 17 going to SpaceX.
Bloomberg’s Dana Hull contributed to this report.