rocket launch

ULA leapfrog SpaceX to win Air Force satellite launch

Science

The United States Air Force has awarded its latest launch contract to United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co , and not Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

The award is the first for United Launch Alliance since the Air Force certified rival SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets for flight and opened bidding for launch contracts in 2015. ULA, which previously had a monopoly on the military’s launch business, sat out the Air Force’s first solicitation and lost the second. Both were awarded to SpaceX. The contract is valued at over $191 million.

According to SpaceX they didn’t expect to win this contract because the mission required a heavy-lift launcher, which SpaceX hasn’t made operations yet. SpaceX Falcon Heavy booster is yet to fly a single mission.

“The mission performance required that we bid Falcon Heavy,” SpaceX spokesman John Taylor wrote in a email to Reuters. “We did submit a bid, but with the knowledge that our first Falcon Heavy flight might occur after the time of the award.  Given we have not flown Falcon Heavy, we did not anticipate winning this mission,” he said.

SpaceX is likely to debut its Falcon Heavy this year. The new booster would need to fly successfully at least once before the Air Force would award SpaceX a Falcon Heavy launch contract, three times before any high-priority military satellites would fly on it, Claire Leon, the launch enterprise director for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, told reporters during a conference call.

Typically, the Air Force awards contracts two years ahead of a launch. Another branch of the Air Force that handles experimental programs bought a Falcon Heavy rocket ride in 2012. That mission is currently targeted to fly early next year, Leon said.

SpaceX also won Falcon 9 contracts to fly a U.S. National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite, which launched in April, and is scheduled to launch the X-37B robotic space plane for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office later this year.

SpaceX is preparing for its 39th launch — and third in nine days — on Sunday.

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