SpaceX, billionaire Elon Musk’s aerospace startup, is reportedly taking its first steps towards securing lucrative U.S. defence contracts. Bloomberg News reported today that the Air Force — which SpaceX sued over anti-competitive practices as recently as last month — now plans on spending $US60 million to certify SpaceX for carrying its payloads.
The certification process will likely involve close analysis of each launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, as the Air Force tries to determine whether it thinks that SpaceX is competent to carry its payloads. The Air Force will be looking at factors like the Falcon 9’s launch environment and at whether the rocket, which is built to be reusable, can still deliver payloads if some of its engines fail in-flight.
That SpaceX is now on track for military contracts is a sign of the changing nature of the U.S. space industry. As Kieth Cowing, a former NASA astrobiologist and current blogger at NASA Watch told Business Insider, the U.S. government likely never thought it would have to certify another potential launch company because of larger companies’ long-standing dominance of aerospace-related government contracts. “The government did not expect to ever have to do this again, because you’ve got a sanctioned monopoly with Boeing and Lockheed Martin,” says Cowing.
SpaceX has been trying to change that. Last month, the company sued the Air Force over its allegedly non-competitive process for awarding launch contracts. And earlier this week, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, a reusable cargo module, successfully returned to earth from the International Space Station.
The company’s emergence, and the government’s sudden openness to aerospace newcomers, comes at an opportune time: Both Boeing and Lockheed rockets use engines built in Russia. SpaceX’s delivery systems are built and designed in the U.S. — so its work isn’t potentially hamstrung by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and increasing alienation from the U.S. and its allies.
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