| COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado May 20 The U.S. Air
Force is working as fast as it can to certify the ability of
privately held Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, to
compete for work launching military and intelligence satellites
into orbit, a top general said Tuesday.
General William Shelton, who heads the Air Force Space
Command, said SpaceX was likely to achieve certification in
December or January, but the process could not be accelerated
given the complex issues that still needed to be addressed.
"It's very difficult to pick up the pace on that," Shelton
told reporters after a speech at a space conference hosted by
the Space Foundation. In addition to certifying SpaceX's three
launches, the Air Force was also looking at the firm's financial
and auditing systems and manufacturing processes, he said.
SpaceX last month sued the Air Force for excluding it from a
multibillion-dollar 36-launch contract awarded to United Launch
Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of the two biggest U.S. weapons
makers, Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co.
Shelton said the Air Force remained committed to increasing
competition in the rocket launch market and was also pressing
forward with other efforts to lower ULA's launch costs.
He said SpaceX could potentially compete for seven or eight
launches before it received formal certification, with any
awards contingent on approval.
He said the lawsuit surprised the Air Force, given that the
military was dedicating $60 million and 100 people to the effort
to certify SpaceX as a new competitor.
"Generally," he said, "the person you're going to do
business with, you don't sue them."
U.S. lawmakers have pressed the Air Force to accelerate its
efforts to open the rocket launch market to new entrants, citing
the high cost of launches now provided by ULA. The issue has
gotten fresh momentum given the use of Russian-made RD-180
rocket engines by the Lockheed-Boeing venture and rising
tensions with Russia over its annexation of Crimea.
Shelton said the Air Force was aware of threats by some
Russian officials that they could cut off the supply of engines
for use in launching U.S. military satellites. But he said no
official change in position had been conveyed to his office or
the company. The head of ULA made similar comments on Monday.
Shelton said he personally favored starting work on a U.S.
alternative rocket engine to help shore up the industrial base
and reduce reliance on foreign-supplied parts.
But he noted the effort would likely cost more than $1
billion and could take five years to complete, and it remained
unclear where the funding would come from.
At the same time, he cautioned against reading too much into
Russian comments on the rocket engines, noting that for now,
ties between the Russian company that builds the rockets and ULA
were proceeding as "business as usual."
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)