The U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center announced yesterday that it has signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with Space Exploration Technologies Corp., paving the way for the company to take the next steps along the pathway to entering the EELV business as outlined in the New Entrants Certification Guide which was introduced in October 2011. According to the press release the CRADA
“enables the Air Force to evaluate the Falcon 9 v1.1 launch system according to the Air Force’s New Entrant Certification Guide (NECG). As part of the evaluation, SMC and SpaceX will look at the Falcon 9 v1.1’s flight history, vehicle design, reliability, process maturity, safety systems, manufacturing and operations, systems engineering, risk management and launch facilities. SMC will monitor at least three certification flights to meet the flight history requirements outlined in the NECG. Once the evaluation process is complete, the SMC commander will make the final determination whether SpaceX has the capability to successfully launch NSS missions using the Falcon 9 v1.1.”
As the announcement indicates, it will still be some time before SpaceX will be in a position to compete for EELV launches, and there is no word on when the Air Force evaluations will begin. Presumably however, SpaceX would want to wait until after the new booster has successfully completed the first few flights on its manifest, and in particular delivered its first commercial communications satellite to GTO, which should come with flight number and the launch of SES-8 out of Cape Canaveral.
SpaceX will enter into a separate certification agreement with the Air Force to enable the Falcon Heavy to compete for EELV class launches, a process which will probably quite a bit longer, as the company currently lists three launches on its manifest for the triple core booster; a demo flight which will likely take place in 2014, followed by two flights the following year, one of which is a demonstration flight for the Air Force, labelled Space Test Program -2, contracted under the Orbital/Suborbital-3 (OSP-3) program. The remaining Falcon Heavy flight currently on the manifest is for Intelsat, but that may not be the case for long.
A sucessful introductory campaign for the Falcon 9 v1.1, the core of the Falcon Heavy, beginning with the launch of Cassiope out of Vandenberg, and followed by the SES launch, is likely to open the door heavy and super heavy class comsat launches in short order.
In a related note, SpaceX has notified the Waco Tribune that another “loud” test similar to 112 second run on Friday evening is imminent.