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.