Explosion Delivers Setback to SpaceX

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Just last month, the U.S. Air Force certified the Falcon 9 launch system from Space Explorations Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) for national security space missions. On Sunday, a Falcon 9 rocket disintegrated just minutes after launch from Cape Canaveral as it was on a mission to resupply the International Space Station with food and equipment. There were no astronauts aboard the Falcon capsule.

Air Force certification had been a contentious issue for the company founded by Tesla Motors Inc. (NASDAQ: TSLA) founder and CEO Elon Musk. In late April 2014, Musk said SpaceX would sue the U.S. Air Force for awarding an exclusive contract for 36 rocket launches to United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) and Lockheed Martin Corp. (NYSE: LMT). The contract, worth $11 billion over five years, was awarded to ULA with no competitive bidding. A further 14 launch rockets for fiscal years 2015 through 2017 were to be competitively bid on, but the Air Force had proposed cutting that number in half.

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SpaceX and the Air Force reached an agreement in January to complete the certification process, which culminated in last month’s announcement that the company was now eligible to join ULA as one of two certified launch providers for U.S. national security missions.

It is unclear how Sunday’s accident will affect the Falcon 9 program going forward. In its certification announcement last month, the Air Force noted:

The certification process provides a path for launch-service providers to demonstrate the capability to design, produce, qualify, and deliver a new launch system and provide the mission assurance support required to deliver national security space satellites to orbit. This gives the Air Force confidence that the national security satellites being delivered to orbit will safely achieve the intended orbits with full mission capability.

A NASA spokesman said the accident “points out the difficulties we face in space flights,” but did not say anything about future plans to use SpaceX or ULA to carry astronauts into space.

SpaceX was expected to bid on GPS satellite launches that the Air Force has put out for bid, but all flights are now expected to be suspended while Sunday’s accident is investigated. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said that the investigation is expected to take months but probably less than a year.

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