The Lockheed-Boeing venture has had a lock on the business for six years. SpaceX, which recently showed it could fly to the international space station, now has the opportunity to prove that its rockets are capable of launching satellites serving Pentagon planners, ground troops and the nation’s spies.
“The one market they have really yet to crack so far is the military launch market,’’ said Jeffrey Foust, a senior analyst at Futron, a technology consulting firm based in Bethesda. “They’re just starting to do that now.”
The two launches were awarded to Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX under an Air Force contract valued at as much as $900 million. The missions, scheduled for 2014 and 2015, are designed to help the company become certified to carry the military and spy satellites.
Musk, who also leads electric automaker Tesla Motors, in a Dec. 5 statement called the Air Force’s decision a “vote of confidence.’’
SpaceX twice this year flew its Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon spacecraft, which delivered cargo to the space station. With the new military business, executives see the firm’s total launch business as stable, if not growing, company President Gwynne Shotwell said at a Dec. 11 space industry luncheon in Washington.
“Now, I think a big challenge is for us to do this hard job and produce the vehicles and launch them reliably,’’ she said.
Robert Stevens, chairman and chief executive of Lockheed, poked fun at SpaceX’s inexperience.
The Lockheed-Boeing venture, known as United Launch Alliance, has launched “hundreds of billions of dollars’’ of satellites on 66 consecutive missions, Stevens said at a Dec. 14 Bloomberg Government breakfast in Washington.
“I’m hugely pleased with 66 in a row from ULA, and I don’t know the record of SpaceX yet,’’ he said. “Two in a row?’’
Although Centennial, Colo.based United Launch Alliance has a successful launch record, it has struggled to control costs.
The average price of its Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets is estimated at $464 million a launch, more than double a previous estimate of $230 million, according to the Pentagon.
“Cost doesn’t matter at all if you don’t put the ball into orbit,’’ said Lockheed’s Stevens, who is retiring as chief executiveO and will be replaced by Chief Operating Officer Marillyn Hewson on Jan. 1. “You can thrift on cost. You can take cost out of a rocket. But I will guarantee you, in my experience, when you start pulling a lot of costs out of a rocket, your quality and your probability of success in delivering a payload to orbit diminishes.’’
Responding to Stevens, Musk said in an e-mailed statement that “all of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 missions have reached orbit and completed all primary mission objectives.”