UPDATED: Adds Insights On Signficance ONRCO Mum So Far ON Switch
GEOINT: In news sure to rock the launch industry, the mighty United Launch Alliance today failed to be named as the company launching the X-37B spaceplane. Instead, Elon Musk’s SpaceX will carry it for the first time, marking what is believed to be the company’s heaviest national security launch to date.
The Air Force announced this evening — after the markets closed — that SpaceX would carry Boeing’s X-37B spaceplane into orbit “later this year.” What’s really interesting about that is that it takes about two years to build a Falcon 9 launcher so the contract was issued some time ago.
An industry source noted that SpaceX is “kicking major butt” with this win, but raised questions about how much risk has increased with the move to SpaceX.
“While SpaceX, and potentially other firms, are bringing competition and lowering the cost of access to space, isn’t our national policy of assured access to Space about more than cost? The Atlas V’s reliability is second-to-none,” the source noted. “SpaceX is kicking major butt but Falcon’s reliability is nowhere near Atlas. The AF decision on X-37 represents a major shift in risk tolerance.”
Pull it apart and this the comment refers to ULA’s remarkable string of 61 succesful Atlas launches, a record SpaceX cannot come close to. As Breaking D readers know, SpaceX had a major failure in September last year when a Falcon 9 undergoing engine testing exploded on the pad at Cape Canaveral.
The X-37B is run by the service’s Rapid Capabilities Office. Randy Walden, its director, stressed they are “confident in SpaceX’s ability to provide safe and assured access to space for the X-37B program.”
It’s unclear from today’s announcement if SpaceX won a competition against ULA for the launch or if, for some reason, the Air Force simply decided to use SpaceX instead of the ULA Atlas V, which has carried every other X-37 mission into orbit.
The spaceplane will be boosted into space by a Falcon 9 Upgrade. In addition to the X-37B, it will carry aloft an Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) experiment. Known as the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader (ASETS-11), it will “test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipes in the long duration space environment,” Walden said in his statement.
As close watchers of the X-37B know, its missions are highly classified. No one without a high clearance knows exactly what it does all alone up there whizzing around the planet for months and months(but click here for our speculations). Knowing the likely launch window well in advance might convey important information to someone trying to evade it.
However, my colleague Phillip Swart of Space News quotes Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson as telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that the launch will occur in August — but still no target date.