SpaceX Falcon Flight Counted Toward USAF Certification


The Sept. 29, 2013 launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9v1.1 was approved by the United States Air Force as one of three required launches toward EELV (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle) certification.  SpaceX, short for Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, is currently under process to obtain EELV certification.  The certification will allow the company to be authorized to provide critical NSS payload launches.  The flight of the Falcon 9v1.1 was approved by the USAF to be counted toward SpaceX’s certification process.  The approval was made public on Feb. 24, 2014 and came from Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski.  The endorsement was granted even though a restart of the upper-stage encountered a malfunction.

SpaceX made history in December 2010 by becoming the only private company to have a low-Earth orbit spacecraft return.  In 2012, the Dragon, another SpaceX craft, also made history by becoming the first privately owned spacecraft to travel to the International Space Station, exchange cargo and then return to Earth.  The company has since completed repeated ventures for NASA to the space station for more cargo supply missions.

SpaceX’s stated goal is to promote reusable rocketry in the quest to become a multi-planet species.  The company believes that the cost of space exploration and access is prohibitive.  In order for Earth to become a more space-dwelling civilization, the cost of everything involved needs to be substantially reduced.  To that end, SpaceX is advancing the idea that such reusable rocketry will directly enhance and forward space programs.

While becoming a multi-planet species is an admirable, if lofty, goal, SpaceX’s first goal is to become EELV certified.  The Falcon flight, recently counted toward the three flights needed for USAF certification, is the first in what SpaceX hopes to be many such flights.  The certification does not rest solely on the achievement of three successful flights, however.  Ground systems and manufacturing processes must be validated; technical reviews must be completed; and audits must also be performed.  The Air Force will be working in tandem with the company in order to expedite these processes whenever possible.

In fact, there are already two scheduled EELV missions in the works for SpaceX.  The missions are currently scheduled for 2014 and 2015.  The first mission, DSCOVR, an acronym for Deep Space Climate Observatory, is planned for late 2014.  The second mission, Space Test Program 2, or STP-2, is planned for sometime mid-year 2015.  Both missions are expected to be launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Space Station in Florida.  These missions fall under the jurisdiction of the United States Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center and are authorized under a contract known as OSP-3 or the Orbital/Suborbital Program-3 contract.

The EELV program has been around since 1994.  It was implemented to reduce costs, standardize operating units, and increase reliability.  In November 2011, a new EELV strategy was approved.  The new EELV recognized only two launch vehicles, the Atlas V and the Delta IV.  These two vehicles were the only ones to meet the service standards in place.  SpaceX hopes to join that list in the near future.

The missions scheduled for SpaceX will be in support of the EELV certification for two rockets manufactured by SpaceX.  The rockets which will be used for the missions are both designated as Falcon rockets.  The rocket for the DSCOVR mission will be the Falcon 9 while the rocket used for STP-2 will be the Falcon Heavy.

For the Falcon 9v1.1, once all review processes are complete and more flights are successful, SpaceX may join the ranks of approved launch vehicles.  While two more launches for the Falcon 9v1.1 are currently under review, to date only the Falcon flight of Sept. 2013 has been counted toward the USAF certification for SpaceX.

By Dee Mueller

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