SpaceX has won a $130 million contract to send a classified Air Force satellite to space on its monster Falcon Heavy rocket. The satellite, known as AFSPC-52, is scheduled to launch in 2020. SpaceX beat out the United Launch Alliance, the joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which was angling to use its own heavy-lift Delta 4 rocket to send the military satellite to space.
One of the goals of pitting companies against each other for contracts like these is to reduce costs for the government. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center Commander Lt. Gen. John Thompson said in a statement released on Thursday that awarding the launch to Space X “fits the mission of delivering resilient and affordable space capabilities to our Nation while maintaining assured access to space.” The average price tag for Delta 4 launches is around $350 million, according to SpaceNews, and NASA’s heavy-lift rocket hasn’t been built yet.
By awarding the launch to SpaceX, the US Air Force is giving the company a vote of confidence in a rocket that has only launched once so far. The first Falcon Heavy lifted off back in February, and while the center rocket booster botched its landing at sea, everything else about the rocket performed up to expectations, according to SpaceX.
The Falcon Heavy costs hundreds of millions less than the ULA’s Delta 4
The willingness of the United States Air Force (USAF) to tap the new rocket so soon is a departure from the protracted process SpaceX went through to get its Falcon 9 rocket certified for military missions. SpaceX spent two years, at least $60 million, and filed a lawsuit against the USAF to gain military certification for the Falcon 9. (The lawsuit was dropped a few months before certification.)
Since then, though, SpaceX has gone on to win multiple USAF contracts. And the USAF has stuck by SpaceX as a launch option despite two Falcon 9 failures on non-military missions, and the loss of the military’s Zuma satellite this past January.
“SpaceX is honored by the Air Force’s selection of Falcon Heavy to launch the competitively-awarded AFSPC-52 mission,” SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement. “I want to thank the Air Force for certifying Falcon Heavy, awarding us this critically important mission, and for their trust and confidence in our company. SpaceX is pleased to continue offering the American taxpayer the most cost-effective, reliable launch services for vital national security space missions.”
SpaceX still hasn’t set a solid date for the second launch of the Falcon Heavy. CEO Elon Musk said in February that it would take “three to six months,” though that may have slipped to October according to a recent report from Florida Today. That mission will send more than two dozen smaller satellites into space. A third launch is scheduled for around the end of the year.
The Falcon Heavy cost SpaceX $500 million to develop and build, Musk said in February. But even with the discount that SpaceX offers over competitors like the ULA, he still expects the giant rocket to make money as long as there are customers.
“The great thing about Falcon heavy is that it opens up a new class of payload,” he said. “It could launch one more than twice as much payload as any other rocket in the world, so it’s up to customers what they might want to launch. But it can launch things direct to Pluto and beyond. No stop needed.”