In a memorandum released Monday night, the U.S. Department of Defense Inspector General told the Air Force’s leadership that it will evaluate the military’s certification of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy for national security missions.
“We plan to start the course evaluation in February 2019,” the memorandum reads. “Our goal is to determine whether the United States Air Force met the Launch Services New Entrant Certification Guide in certifying the launch system design for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle-class SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.”
The memorandum does not indicate why the Inspector General considers such an evaluation necessary. Signed by Deputy Inspector General Michael Roark, the memorandum states only that the evaluation will take place at the Space and Missile Systems Center, which is headquartered at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, California. This is just a few miles from SpaceX’s headquarters in neighboring Hawthorne.
The Air Force certified the Falcon Heavy rocket in June 2018, following the company’s maiden flight with the large booster in February 2018. The Air Force also announced at the time that it had awarded SpaceX a contract to launch the AFSPC-52 satellite, said the missile offered the government “a total launch solution for this mission”.
Traditionally, the government has taken more than one flight to certify a rocket for national security missions, but SpaceX and the Air Force have agreed on a separate certification process for the Falcon Heavy, as there is currently only one U.S. rocket capable of to all desired government jobs. (That rocket is the Delta IV Heavy booster, built by United Launch Alliance. It has a flawless record, but it costs a whopping three times the Falcon Heavy.) SpaceX has at least two other missions on its Falcon Heavy manifest before the AFSPC -52 launched, so the certification could have been conditional based on the success of those flights.
The announcement of this review comes just a week after California politicians complained to the Air Force about its handling of its procurement strategy for next-generation missiles to launch government missions.
Space news reported that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) wrote to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, arguing that the way the Air Force chose future launch providers created an unfair playing field. Although SpaceX was not mentioned in the letter, lawmakers suggested the company got a bad deal because, unlike its main competitors, it did not receive funding from the Air Force when a new round of “Launch Service Agreements” was awarded in October 2018. . requested an independent inquiry into the award decision.
As part of that deal, United Launch Alliance, Northrup Grumman and Blue Origin received more than $2.2 billion to develop their next-generation missiles. SpaceX did not receive an award, probably because the Air Force already had a booster from the company that could fulfill all its reference orbits: the Falcon Heavy.