SpaceX Wins Air Force Satellite Launch Contract

Contract opens up competition for military payload launches to private space companies.

The U.S. Air Force has awarded SpaceX a $130 million contract to launch its AFSC-52 satellite into orbit—a groundbreaking and promising decision for the growing private space industry.

The satellite is expected to launch in 2020 aboard the Falcon Heavy, the most powerful commercial rocket in the world. According to the contract posting, SpaceX will provide “launch vehicle production and mission, as well as integration, launch operations and spaceflight worthiness activities.”

The contract, part of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, marks the first major deal for the private space company to launch a larger spy satellite. SpaceX has already bid successfully for Air Force contracts to launch three military GPS satellites using its Falcon 9 rocket, with the option of delivering two more satellites into orbit.

First launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, with its famous Starman cargo.

This development comes mere months after SpaceX’s first successful launch of the Falcon Heavy.

The company beat out its biggest rival, United Launch Alliance (ULA), a Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture that previously had a monopoly on launching sensitive Air Force payloads into space.

Elon Musk, founder, CEO and lead designer of SpaceX, has said that the Falcon Heavy operates at one-third the cost of the ULA’s Delta IV Heavy. Falcon Heavy is more cost-effective because the company recovers the rocket’s booster: following liftoff, the two side boosters separate from the center core and return to a landing site for future reuse.

This contract serves as a validation for SpaceX, which previously sued the Air Force for the right to compete for EELV launches. The Air Force had granted a contract to ULA for the EELV program without any competition from other launch providers.

SpaceX’s successful bids have broken ULA’s monopoly over Air Force launch activities, setting an important precedent for the future of space launches. “We’re coming to a point [where the lower cost to launch is] enabling business plans to close in space that never were possible before,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said at a congressional subcommittee hearing last March.

SpaceX is already one of the leading aerospace companies in the world, having completed missions for NASA, deliveries to the International Space Station, and launches for commercial satellite companies. The company is now winning military contracts.

Competition for these launches could encourage innovation, efficiency and cost reductions—and potentially open the door to more competition from other private space companies.

Read more about the growth of the global private space industry at China’s Private Space Race.