Aviation Week is reporting that SpaceX and the U.S. Air Force are “days away” from finalizing details for a certification plan which would allow the company to compete for national security launches aboard its Falcon 9 V1.1 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles. Having already won two launch orders under the Air Force’s separate Orbital/Suborbital-3 (OPS-3) program, which carries a lower level of risk, final announcement of a certification plan will mark another significant milestone for company as it seeks to expand its business into the world of EELV launches now monopolized by United Launch Alliance. It will also mark the beginning of a new era for SpaceX, which having very successfully learned to work with NASA and its Partner Integration Teams will now need to handle a new level of scrutiny from a different organization, the Air Force, as it undergoes far-reaching audits into its systems before winning any launch orders under EELV.
Although there will no doubt be some rough moments along the way, it seems likely that such scrutiny, which after all has helped Boeing, Lockheed Martin and their progeny ULA, achieve unprecedented reliability for American (well mostly American, RD-180 and some payload fairings excepted) ) expendable launch vehicles, could very well do the same for SpaceX which is off to a pretty good start as it is. The question, which will not be answered for some time, is how the increased overhead of new compliance affects the Falcon’s overall cost structure. If the effect is negligible or only modest, and is born out by the actual flight record, then ULA, which has repeatedly attempted to justfy the high costs of the EELV program in recent years by pointing to product reliability, will have some “splainin” to do.
On another note, one additional benefit which will in all likelihood still be ignored by certain members of Congress is that the increased scrutiny required by the Air Force, should rationally go a long way to easing “concerns” voiced by some that the launch systems offered under Commercial Crew, including both the Atlas V and the Falcon 9, are somehow unsafe because they were not explicitly designed by NASA.