Shockwave/ Image Credit SpaceX
It’s not a launch order yet, but Space News reports that SpaceX has received a $4.2 million contract from the Air Force to study payload integration on the Falcon 9 V1.1 for an undisclosed satellite.
Although the Air Force was supposed to set aside 14 launch opportunities for open bidding through 2018, slowdowns in procurement, particularly of GPS III satellites, have now reduced that number to 7. While Elon Musk recently suggested that ULA should bear some burden of that cutback in the form of reduction its 36 rocket core block buy, the Air Force has thus remained steadfast.
Most observers believe that the GPS-III series makes an ideal candidate payload for early SpaceX DoD launches due to its lighter weight, reduced cost, and the overall redundancy of the Global Positioning Satellite fleet compared to other military spacecraft.
On the other hand, tensions between the U.S. and Russia are driving increased scrutiny of the Atlas V’s use of the Russian built RD-180 main engine, and it is entirely possible that outside events could drive a change in the risk /reward calculus concerning EELV launches.
The Air Force has already indicated that the initial Falcon 9 V 1.1 which was conducted late last year, will qualify under its CRADA agreement, despite the fact that there was an issue with an optional second stage relight. Given that the next two launches, both to GTO were flawless, SpaceX appears poised to become the first new provider under the EELV program, breaking the ULA monopoly which has driven military launch prices to astronomical levels. Based on previous statements, the earliest SpaceX could receive its first launch order under the program would be in early 2015.