SpaceX (or Space Exploration Technologies) saw its first successful unmanned mission to the International Space Station last month, opening up more options for the company to compete for government contracts, including launching satellites.
Reuters reports that the successful flight of the Dragon capsule, which took off on May 22nd from Cape Canaveral and splashed into the Pacific Ocean on May 31, means that the company can now start working off a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to fly cargo to the ISS. The flight also clears a huge hurdle for the company to start competing for Department of Defense contracts, as well, including launching military satellites.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stated after Dragon’s successful return from orbit:
“The one market that we have not yet been successful with is launching Defense Department satellites, although we’re hopeful that we’ll win one or two demonstration launches this year. Hopefully the successive flights of Falcon 9 in a row will give them the confidence they need to open up the defense contract for competition.”
MSNBC notes that three successful space flights was one requirement to be eligible to compete for military business, and that the May mission marked the third success for the company. SpaceX Communications Director Kirstin Brost Grantham stated:
“The new entrant criteria did say three launches are required (for Falcon 9) before certification can happen for national security payloads.”
Air Force spokeswoman Tracy Bunko wrote in an email to Reuters that there are many different paths to qualify for government contracts. She stated:
“If the new entrant has a launch vehicle with a more robust, demonstrated successful flight history, then we may require less technical evaluation for certification. But, it also depends on the risk assessment of the mission.”
For now though, the United Launch Alliance, or ULA, remains the only provider of heavy and medium lift commercial launch services to the U.S. Military, although SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy could soon be a competitor.