For Full Story: Florida Today
Article By: James Dean
The Air Force on Thursday awarded SpaceX a $130 million contract to launch a classified mission from Kennedy Space Center on a Falcon Heavy rocket, giving the big rocket its first competitive win of a military launch contract.
The Falcon Heavy beat out a bid from United Launch Alliance for the mission labeled Air Force Space Command-52, or AFSPC-52, which is targeting liftoff from KSC’s pad 39A in 2020.
United Launch Alliance’s most powerful launcher, the Delta IV Heavy, has a price tag approaching $400 million.
“I want to thank the Air Force for certifying Falcon Heavy, awarding us this critically important mission, and for their trust and confidence in our company,” SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement. “SpaceX is pleased to continue offering the American taxpayer the most cost-effective, reliable launch services for vital national security space missions.”
With more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, the Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket flying today, roughly twice as powerful as the Delta IV Heavy.
Featuring a first stage comprised of three Falcon boosters strapped together and firing 27 main engines, the Falcon Heavy has flown once, successfully completing a demonstration flight from KSC on Feb. 6.
That highly anticipated test flight delivered SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s cherry red Tesla Roadster and its mannequin driver “Starman” into an orbit extending beyond Mars. The rocket’s two side boosters landed on pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
SpaceX is targeting a second Falcon Heavy flight this fall, on a mission that will include Air Force, NASA and other small payloads, including a CubeSat developed by Merritt Island High School students.
The Hawthorne, California company’s website lists three more Falcon Heavy missions under contract, not including the one announced Thursday.
Denver, Colorado-based ULA previously won three military missions that could have used a Falcon Heavy, awarded before the Air Force had certified the SpaceX rocket.
Thursday’s award was the latest in an Air Force strategy to open certain launch contracts to competition between ULA and SpaceX, after more than a decade when only ULA’s Atlas and Delta rockets were certified to launch high-value national security missions.
The competitions are managed by the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles through its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, program.
“The competitive award of this EELV launch service contract directly supports Space and Missile Systems Center’s mission of delivering resilient and affordable space capabilities to our nation while maintaining assured access to space,” said Lt. Gen John Thompson, the SMC commander, in a press release.
ULA, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, said it supported competition but was disappointed by the Air Force’s decision on the AFSPC-52 mission.
“Since the Air Force’s phase 1A competition has begun, ULA has competed very well and has won numerous critical launch services,” the company said in a statement. “ULA will continue to offer the best value launch service, most reliable rockets, and on-time delivery of vital assets in support of U.S. warfighters around the world.”
In an unrelated mission, ULA is preparing a Delta IV Heavy rocket for a launch of a NASA solar probe from Cape Canaveral no earlier than Aug. 4, under a launch contract worth $389.1 million.