The U.S. Air Force on Tuesday said it has certified privately held SpaceX to launch U.S. military and spy satellites, ending a monopoly held by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., since its creation in 2006.
The decision follows two years of discussions and reviews by the Air Force and SpaceX, and means the company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk can now compete for national security launches with its Falcon 9 rocket.
"SpaceX's emergence as a viable commercial launch provider provides the opportunity to compete launch services for the first time in almost a decade," Air Force Secretary Deborah James said. Leveraging SpaceX's investment in an alternate launch vehicle would help drive down the cost and help improve the U.S. military's resiliency, James said.
Watch the Launch of the Classified X-37B Space PlaneMay 20, 201505:52
SpaceX's first opportunity to compete against ULA would come in June, when the Air Force said it expects to kick off a competition for launches of additional Global Positioning System III satellites built by Lockheed. The certification, initially expected at the end of last year, came after two years of intensive reviews, paperwork and other work by both the Air Force and SpaceX.
The Air Force said it spent more than $60 million and dedicated 150 people to the effort, which included 125 criteria, 2,800 discreet tasks, three certification flight demonstrations, 21 major subsystem reviews and 700 audits aimed at establishing a technical baseline for future flight worthiness determinations.
Musk called the decision "an important step toward bringing competition to national security space launch." Certification of SpaceX to launch national security satellites will end the U.S. military's reliance on Russian-built RD-180 engines used by ULA to power its Atlas 5 rocket. The U.S. Congress has banned the use of Russian engines for national security launches after 2019. It passed the law after Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region last year.
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