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SpaceX lands $290 million contract to launch satellites for US Air Force

Spandan Sharma
15th Mar 2018
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Elon Musk’s SpaceX has added another feather to its cap after the US Department of Defense (DoD) yesterday announced that it had awarded the company a contract worth $290 million for the launch of three Air Force missions, with the first launch expected by March 2020. The missions will launch three next-generation Air-Force Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, dubbed GPS-III. The decision to give SpaceX the contract for three new launches comes almost exactly a year after the DoD awarded the California-based company $96.5 million to launch the third GPS III satellite from the Eastern Range in February 2019.

Image: Flickr

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX COO and President, said after the announcement, “SpaceX is pleased with the Air Force’s decision to select us for all five of the GPS III missions completed to date...We look forward to the successful completion of these important national security space missions.” SpaceX’s ability to reuse old rockets for launches has led to drastically reduced costs for the company’s missions, allowing it to effectively compete in bids for missions from agencies. A report in the Wall Street Journal estimates that each SpaceX mission costs roughly $70 million less than its closest competitors, making it a great option for agencies like the DoD looking to get their tech into space at low cost.

The DoD also announced a $354 million contract to United Launch Alliance (ULA), the space launch joint-venture between aerospace manufactures Boeing and Lockheed Martin. ULA will launch two Air Force Space Command spacecraft – the AFSPC-8 and AFSPC-12 – from Cape Canaveral, Florida, by June 2020 and March 2020 respectively. In a statement, the company said, “United Launch Alliance is honored to be selected to launch these critical national security satellites for our country...Reliably launching our customer’s missions remains our top priority like we have for the more than 125 successful missions we have launched.”

Both contracts, referred to by the DoD as “Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) launch service contracts”, are an attempt to find “a balance between meeting operational needs and lowering launch costs through reintroducing competition for National Security Space missions”. Lt Gen John F. Thompson, Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space and SMC commander, said, “The competitive award of these two EELV launch service contracts directly supports Space and Missile Systems Center's (SMC's) mission of delivering resilient and affordable space capabilities to our Nation while maintaining assured access to space.”

As more and more nations make the leap into space, companies like SpaceX and ULA will likely see increased demand for their services from not just commercial and research organisations like NASA but military ones like the DoD too. It will be interesting to see how the security interests and nationalistic focuses of these outfits will work in compatibility with the more research- and commerce-oriented goals of private players like SpaceX.

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