And the Dam Begins to Break, SpaceX Awarded First EELV Class Launches

SpaceX Falcon 9Credit: S Money

SpaceX Falcon 9
Credit: S Money

Following up on yesterday’s surprise announcement  in Space News that the Air Force was setting aside 14 EELV class launch opportunities for competitive bidding starting in 2015, Aviation Week is reporting that a separate but related Air Force launch procurement effort, the Orbital/Suborbital (OSP-3) is making its first two awards to SpaceX.  The OSP program is functioning both as a development path for smaller vehicles, as well as a stepping stone towards  competitive procurement for the larger Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

Here is the press release from SpaceX:


(Hawthorne, CA) — The United States Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center has awarded SpaceX two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV)-class missions:  DSCOVR (Deep Space Climate Observatory) and STP-2 (Space Test Program 2). To be launched on SpaceX’s Falcon launch vehicles in 2014 and 2015 respectively, the awards mark the first EELV-class missions awarded to the company to date.

“SpaceX deeply appreciates and is honored by the vote of confidence shown by the Air Force in our Falcon launch vehicles,” said Elon Musk, CEO and chief designer, SpaceX. “We look forward to providing high reliability access to space with lift capability to orbit that is substantially greater than any other launch vehicle in the world.”

The DSCOVR mission will be launched aboard a Falcon 9 and is currently slated for late 2014, while STP-2 will be launched aboard the Falcon Heavy and is targeted for mid-2015. Both are expected to launch from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Both missions fall under Orbital/Suborbital Program-3 (OSP-3), an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract for the US Air Force Rocket Systems Launch Program. OSP-3 represents the first Air Force contract designed to provide new entrants to the EELV program an opportunity to demonstrate their vehicle capabilities.

The two missions will support the EELV certification process for both the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket in the world, is expected to take its first flight in the second half of 2013. Building on reliable flight proven architecture, the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles are designed for exceptional reliability, meeting the stringent U.S. Air Force requirements for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.

End Press Release

The two awards mark a potential sea change in the launch industry, and the beginning of the end of the ULA monopoly. Provided it is successful, the  launch of DSCOVR aboard a Falcon 9 V1.1 in two years will pave the way for a full competition for 14 EELV slots beginning the following year.

Readers may remember that the Deep Space Climate Observatory is the same spacecraft which was originally named Triana, and originally proposed by former Vice-President Al Gore to provide continuous imagery of planet Earth available on the internet.  Shelved for political reasons, because the incoming Bush Administration did not like what it perceived as environmental overtones, the spacecraft which will also measure the amount of sunlight our planet reflects back into space, has been sitting in storage ever since.

The second award, for a Falcon Heavy test payload in 2015 is in some ways even more significant because of the potential to cement the 53 Ton heavy lift booster as a legitimate and proven alternative for mission planning not just for DOD and NRO, but also for NASA as well as private development efforts which are beginning to emerge.

In many ways, the remainder of this decade is beginning to look every bit as exciting as the golden age of launch vehicle development in the early 1960’s, with one very signficant difference. Unlike that era, cost is now a primary driver and meaningful advances are far more likely to stay with us. The space frontier,  at long last, could really be open for business.

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1 Comment on "And the Dam Begins to Break, SpaceX Awarded First EELV Class Launches"

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  1. Coastal Ron says:

    If these trends by SpaceX and ULA continue, then ULA may be in serious trouble by the end of this decade.

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