SpaceX Makes Strides Without the U.S. Air Force as a Customer

4/12/2011
By Stew Magnuson
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, stood in front  of a reusable capsule his eight-year-old company sent into orbit in December, and expressed frustration with the U.S. Air Force.
It is the only major launch customer in the world that has not signed up to use one of its family of rockets.
Musk founded the company in 2002 after selling his stake in PayPal, and the company has had a meteoric rise in the space industry. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was an early backer of his efforts to develop new, less expensive rockets. Only a few short years after the company's founding, it was sending its first Falcon launch vehicle into space.
NASA has awarded SpaceX major contracts to resupply the international space station, but so far has not gotten any love from the Air Force.
"I am a little disappointed in progress with the Air Force [expendable launch vehicle] contract," he said. "The Air Force is the sole holdout in terms of world launch." SpaceX is shooting for a yearly manifest of about 22 missions. NASA and a range of commercial customers have signed up for rides aboard its Falcon 9 rocket.
The company has had many discussions with the Air Force, but its interest waxes and wanes, Musk said. "We are making sure that any reason to not use SpaceX has been removed," he added.
Musk said he has heard that the Air Force is still waiting for more successful launches.
"Certainly there is interest in Congress for making the best use of taxpayer funds, and I think congressional pressure is going to become extreme," Musk said.
During a speech at the conference earlier, Rep. C.A. Ruppersberger, D-Md., ranking minority member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a member of the Armed Services Committee, welcomed SpaceX's announcement that it would begin development of a heavy lift rocket.
SpaceX recently announced its intention to develop the Falcon Heavy, a rocket capable of placing 53 metric tons into orbit.
"A huge factor in the Falcon Heavy development is servicing the Air Force and making sure we can totally address the [heavy lift] requirements and go far beyond them," he told reporters at the Space Symposium here.
SpaceX wants to provide the Air Force with "capabilities they have never had before in launching bigger satellites." That goes for commercial satellite operators as well, he said.
Musk acknowledged that the company's goal to revolutionize launch technology has not been achieved. He described it as more "evolutionary." Still, the price of a SpaceX launch is roughly half what its competitors charge, he noted.
The revolution that would radically lower the cost of sending vehicles into space would be a fully reusable launch vehicle, one that would deliver a payload, return to Earth intact and then could be quickly prepared to be sent up again. He described that as "one of the toughest technological challenges humans will ever solve."
Nevertheless, SpaceX is working on the problem. It might take five years before it can come up with a solution, but that is more of a "hope" rather than a prediction, he said.

Topics: Space

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