SpaceX rocket

Air Force general: We're 'busting our butts' to launch SpaceX rockets

Shares

The U.S. Air Force is "busting [its] butt to launch SpaceX vehicles into orbit, a senior official has claimed amid accusations that croneyism in the military is shutting the space start-up out of government contracts.

Last month, Elon Musk filed a lawsuit against the Air Force, alleging the military branch illegally shut his company out of opportunities for launch contracts. He claims the Air Force's over reliance on United Launch Alliance (ULA) – a joint venture of Lockheed and Boeing – has created a monopoly on U.S. space launches.

"The impacts of relying on a monopoly provider since 2006 are predictable and they are borne out," Musk told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee in March. "Space launch innovation has stagnated, competition has been stifled and prices have risen to (unsustainable) levels."

Musk, who is also the Chairman and CEO of Tesla Motors (as well as the man behind the ambitious Hyperloop proposal), is upset, in part, over a exclusive deal the Air Force cut with ULA late last year. ULA currently has contracts with the Air Force valued at $2.6 billion. This includes an agreement, made last December, that guarantees ULA 36 launches through 2017.

In the meantime, the Air Force has reduced the number of launches for which SpaceX can compete from 14 to just seven during the next three years. And SpaceX can only compete once their vehicles have been certified – which hasn't happened yet.

The certification process is ongoing, but SpaceX says the Air Force is dragging its feet. Founded in 2002, SpaceX has already flown a handful of missions for NASA, but the Air Force is reviewing those missions before entrusting the private company and its unmanned spacecrafts with valuable military payloads.

Still, the Air Force spends about $60 million and employs up to 100 people to certify spacecraft built by Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp., according to Lt. Gen. Charles Davis, the Air Force's chief uniformed acquisition official.

"We’ve got folks busting their butt to get SpaceX certified despite what everything in the media seems to say,” Davis told Bloomberg recently, rebutting accusations that the Air Force has been playing favorites with long-time contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

“I know we have a company out there that says ‘we can do everything for you already,’ and I know that’s not exactly the case yet,” Davis said of SpaceX. “We are trying to get them there.”

Davis says he expects SpaceX to be certified for military missions by May 2015.

But that's not soon enough for Musk's company. A spokeswoman says that although the company understands the need for the military to audit SpaceX machines for safety and performance, every year the Air Force waits is costing taxpayers $1 billion.

Photo by Phil Plait/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)