Air Force Says Working Hard To Certify SpaceX Rockets
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[May 21, 2014]
By Andrea Shalal
COLORADO SPRINGS Colo. (Reuters) - The
U.S. Air Force is working as fast as it can to certify the ability of
privately held Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, to compete for
work launching military and intelligence satellites into orbit, a top
general said on Tuesday.
General William Shelton, who heads the Air Force Space Command,
said SpaceX was likely to achieve certification in December or
January, but the process could not be accelerated given the complex
issues that still needed to be addressed.
"It's very difficult to pick up the pace on that," Shelton told
reporters after a speech at a space conference hosted by the Space
Foundation. In addition to certifying SpaceX's three launches, the
Air Force was also looking at the firm's financial and auditing
systems and manufacturing processes, he said.
SpaceX last month sued the Air Force for excluding it from a
multibillion-dollar 36-launch contract awarded to United Launch
Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of the two biggest U.S. weapons
makers, Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co.
Shelton said the Air Force remained committed to increasing
competition in the rocket launch market and was also pressing
forward with other efforts to lower ULA's launch costs.
He said SpaceX could possibly compete for some launches before
certification, with awards contingent on approval.
He said the lawsuit surprised the Air Force, given that the military
was dedicating $60 million and 100 people to the effort to certify
SpaceX as a new competitor.
"Generally," he said, "the person you're going to do business with,
you don't sue them."
Undersecretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning told a dinner audience
at the conference that the Air Force was determined to increase
competition and drive down the cost of the existing ULA rockets.
He said the Air Force was also reassessing its reliance on
Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines used in ULA's Atlas rockets,
given the fragility of relations with Russia amid tensions over its
annexation of Crimea.
Fanning said the Air Force was looking at longer-term options,
including building an alternative engine, the promise of new
entrants or increasing use of ULA's Delta rockets.
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Shelton said the Air Force was aware of threats by some Russian
officials that they could cut off the supply of engines for use in
launching U.S. military satellites. But he said no official change
in position had been conveyed.
A new Air Force report on the RD-180 engine said a halt in Russian
engine shipments would have a significant impact on the U.S.
military launch program, according to sources briefed on the report.
It said options to mitigate the loss of the Russian engines were
limited through 2017, but recommended the Air Force boost funding to
develop a new U.S. engine.
Shelton declined comment on the report, but said he favored starting
work on a U.S. rocket engine to help shore up the industrial base
and reduce reliance on foreign-supplied parts.
He said the effort would likely cost more than $1 billion and could
take five years to complete and it remained unclear from where the
funding would come.
At the same time, he cautioned against reading too much into Russian
comments on the rocket engines, noting that for now, ties between
the Russian company that builds the rockets and ULA were proceeding
as "business as usual."
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Kenneth
Maxwell and Matt Driskill)
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