Falcon Heavy

Building on the success of the Falcon 9 rocket (which uses 9 engines to get off the ground), SpaceX's Falcon Heavy uses 27 engines in its first stage--giving it over twice the lift of the Delta IV Heavy rocket. The core vehicle can lift 53 tonnes to low earth orbit, and 12 tonnes to the transfer for geostationary orbits (where some spy satellites live, watching the globe below). SpaceX promises launch costs for the Heavy will be a fraction of its peers.

Atlas V

The Atlas V is one of SpaceX's competitors in the U.S. military launch game, originally coming from Lockheed Martin but now operated as part of the United Launch Alliance collaboration with Boeing. It can haul up to 13 tonnes into the transfer position for geostationary orbits.

Delta IV

The Delta IV is SpaceX's other competitor, originally a Boeing vehicle. It can lift 13.1 tonnes to the transfer point for geosynchronous orbit--more than any currently operating vehicle.


DSCOVR is intended to be the first satellite that provided a continuous view of the sunlit Earth from space, sitting at a strange, stable gravitational point in space called L1. Al Gore first proposed it in 1998, promising its view would be available on the Net, and raise awareness of global environmental matters. Controversy has beset the mission, and it was removed from the Space Shuttle flight that became the Columbia disaster. It's sat in storage since then.


FASTSAT was a successful satellite program, effectively acting as NASA's first minisatellite mission to evaluate how smaller, cheaper satellites could be used effectively to gather data. It was launched in partnership with an earlier USAF Space Test Program mission.

SpaceX Lands Air Force Rocket Launch Deal

Elon Musk's private space company has secured its first contract from the U.S. Air Force. Does this move SpaceX into an innovative new frontier of the 21st-century space race?

SpaceX has somewhat quietly landed a pivotal deal this week: Mission orders from the United States Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center. The orders are for two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) missions, one in late 2014 to launch the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite on a Falcon 9 rocket—like the one used on a mission to the International Space Station recently—and one in mid-2015 to launch the Space Test Program 2 mission on SpaceX's upcoming giant Falcon Heavy rocket. SpaceX notes that these are the "first EELV-class missions awarded to the company to date."

That's a bit of an understatement. A contract like this is proof positive—should you need it after the success of SpaceX's Dragon vehicle missions to the ISS—that SpaceX is the first of the new breed of private space companies that is moving into the big leagues. Because while, for good reasons, NASA's space missions scoop up glamour and media attention, many more military missions happen than you might think, each coming with a multi-million-dollar price ticket. Even the Space Shuttle itself, poster rocket of the last space generation, launched many under-the-radar payloads and was designed to have larger wings than it would otherwise have needed in order to accommodate certain launch missions for the USAF.

Both these missions will help the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy gain EELV certification, which means they'll join long-standing military contractors Lockheed Martin and Boeing, which have had a virtual monopoly on EELV launches since 1998. The EELV program was designed to make government space launches more reliable and cheaper, and resulted in the existing Delta IV and Atlas V rockets—the main way the U.S. gets its military satellites into orbit. To this end, SpaceX notes its "vehicles are designed for exceptional reliability, meeting the stringent U.S. Air Force requirements for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program."

It's also worth remembering that the Falcon Heavy will be the biggest rocket built privately, and also the biggest rocket built anywhere since the giant Saturn V that was keystone of the Apollo program and helped Messrs Armstrong and Aldrin make history on the Moon.

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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