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SpaceX Wins $130 Million Falcon Heavy Contract to Launch Classified USAF Satellite in 2020

Illustration for article titled SpaceX Wins $130 Million Falcon Heavy Contract to Launch Classified USAF Satellite in 2020
Photo: AP

SpaceX, the Elon Musk-helmed company which earlier this year saw its partially reusable Falcon Heavy officially become the most powerful rocket in the world, has won its first contract to use that system to deliver a classified payload.

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Per the Verge, the Air Force announced this week the $130 million contract to deliver its AFSPC-52 satellite to orbit in 2020 will go to SpaceX, beating out joint Boeing-Lockheed Martin venture and sole competitor United Launch Alliance’s bid to use a Delta 4 rocket. According to Space News, the average cost of a Delta 4 launch is around $350 million, which may explain why the Air Force is going for the relatively untested Falcon Heavy—it is a hell of a lot cheaper.

As the Verge noted, that far lower price point probably eased the Air Force’s decision even after SpaceX struggled to get the Falcon 9 approved for military use:

The willingness of the United States Air Force (USAF) to tap the new rocket so soon is a departure from the protracted process SpaceX went through to get its Falcon 9 rocket certified for military missions. SpaceX spent two years, at least $60 million, and filed a lawsuit against the USAF to gain military certification for the Falcon 9. (The lawsuit was dropped a few months before certification.)

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This is the fifth mission that will be added to the Falcon Heavy’s manifest, per CNN Money. Those include an Air Force STP-2 demonstration mission and an Arabsat commercial launch both planned for sometime this year, while fleet operators Intelsat, Viasat and Inmarsat all have launch options they have not yet committed to.

So SpaceX will likely have some time to continue working on the Falcon Heavy before it has the chance to launch the Air Force’s secret cargo. A lot is on the line, with Musk saying the system cost around half a billion dollars to develop. A previous Falcon 9 mission to launch the classified, multi-billion Zuma satellite for the Air Force went wrong, with the cargo lost, though subsequent investigations revealed that sloppy work from Northrop Grumman and one of its subcontractors was to blame. Two Falcon 9s have also exploded.

“SpaceX is honored by the Air Force’s selection of Falcon Heavy to launch the competitively-awarded AFSPC-52 mission,” SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell told CNN Money 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.”

[The Verge/CNN Money]

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DISCUSSION

I believe there has been a lot of behind-the-scenes politics against SpaceX pertaining to military contracts. The US military likes it’s long term relationship with traditional contractors, and this upstart offends their sensibilities.

But it’s hard to argue with half price and an ongoing schedule of successful launches. SpaceX is making their business model work, and I think the US military is foolish not to hitch its wagon to the new mule train to the stars.

I’m not a dyed in the wool SpaceX fanboy. They do promise a lot and deliver more slowly than promised, but they also do continue to deliver. Falcon Heavy may be 5 years late and end up being an interim solution, but it is flying and can deliver until the BFR actually shows up and proves itself.

And unlike most of its competitors who have a tendency to use old Russian engines, SpaceX is designing and building its own engines right here in the United States.