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.
Per the Verge, the Air Force announced this week the $130 million (£98 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 (£264 million), which may explain why the US 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 US 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 (£45 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.)
This is the fifth mission that will be added to the Falcon Heavy’s manifest, per CNN Money. Those include a US 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]