Monday, June 25, 2018

SpaceX Wins $130 Million Air Force Contract for Classified Military Launch on Falcon Heavy

Maiden SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket is erected to vertical launch position at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida prior to successful launch on Feb. 6, 2018.  Credit: Ken Kremer/
Ken Kremer  --  --   24 June 2018

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL –  SpaceX has won a competitively bid military contract from the US Air Force for the launch of a classified US national security payload on the Falcon Heavy rocket, the Air Force announced.

SpaceX was awarded $130 million to launch the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC)-52 satellite in Fiscal Year 2020 for the Air Force under terms of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) launch service contract program.

To date the triple barreled Falcon Heavy has only launched once – on its maiden mission which took place successfully earlier this year in February with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster as the payload.  

Thus the selection of the singly launched Falcon Heavy to loft what is undoubtedly a rather expensive and extremely elaborate satellite employing advanced new technologies  is perhaps somewhat surprising.

“Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) has been awarded a $130 million firm-fixed price contract for launch services to deliver Air Force Space Command (AFSPC)-52 to the intended orbit,” according to an Air Force statement. 

The nature and orbit of the (AFSPC)-52 is top secret, as well as its mass and dimensions and all other details regarding capabilities and purposes.  

However the launch site was proclaimed to be the Kennedy Space Center in Florida which indicates Launch Complex 39A - which SpaceX leases from NASA and utilized for both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell thanked the Air Force for the award.

“SpaceX is honored by the Air Force’s selection of Falcon Heavy to launch the competitively-awarded AFSPC-52 mission,” said SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell, in a statement provided to Space UpClose. 

The Air Force said they are trying to cut launch costs while maintaining assured and reliable access to space with the competitive biddings process.

The only other certified bidder would have been United Launch Alliance (ULA). 

It is believed that ULA offered either the Atlas 551 or the triple core Delta IV Heavy but the details are completely classified.  The cost of a Delta IV Heavy is roughly $350 million.

Until recently ULA enjoyed a virtual monopoly on military launches. 

“The competitive award of this EELV launch service contract directly supports Space and Missile Systems Center’s (SMC) mission of delivering resilient and affordable space capabilities to our Nation while maintaining assured access to space,” said Lt. Gen. John Thompson, Air Force program executive officer for Space and SMC commander, in a statement.

“This is the fifth competitive procurement under the current Phase 1A strategy.  These launch service contract awards strike a balance between meeting operational needs and lowering launch costs through reintroducing competition for National Security Space missions," the Air Force noted.

Interestingly SpaceX announced that the launch vehicle would be the Falcon Heavy instead of the Falcon 9.

Launch of SpaceX Falcon Heavy on debut test flight
from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Feb. 6, 2018

Credit: Ken Kremer/

Furthermore Shotwell stated that the Air Force had approved the certification of the Falcon Heavy for these critical and covert national security missions in defense of the homeland.

“On behalf of all of our employees, I want to thank the Air Force for certifying Falcon Heavy, awarding us this critically important mission, and for their trust and confidence in our company." 

Shotwell also made of point of stating that SpaceX launch costs are lower than their competitors. 

“SpaceX is pleased to continue offering the American taxpayer the most cost-effective, reliable launch services for vital national security space missions.”
However, the details and cost of the ULA bid have not been made public.
ULA launched the prior AFSPC mission for the USAF. 

The next Falcon Heavy launch is not expected until later this year, potentially November or December but the date has slipped frequently.

The payload is the Air Force STP-2 demonstration satellite. 

The next SpaceX launch from Florida is scheduled for later this week when a reused Falcon 9 rocket will lift off on Friday, June 29, on the Dragon CRS-15 resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station.
SpaceX conducts successful static fire test of reused Falcon 9 first stage at 5:30 p.m. EDT on June 23 at Space Launch Complex-40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for CRS-15 resupply mission to the ISS targeted on launch June 29, 2018.  Credit: Ken Kremer/ 

The path to launch was cleared following a successful hold down static fire test of the first stage engines on Sat, June 23. Read my story.

Blastoff of the ‘used’ SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon CRS-15 commercial cargo freighter is now slated for dawn Friday, June 29 at 5:42 a.m. EDT (0942 GMT) from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

CRS-15 marks the 12th flight overall for SpaceX in 2018 and the 2nd ISS resupply mission for NASA in 2018. 

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of NASA, SpaceX, ULA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and more space and mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida and Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia.

Stay tuned here for Ken's continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news: – – twitter @ken_kremer – email: ken at


Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Learn more about the upcoming upcoming/recent SpaceX Falcon 9/CRS-15 launch to ISS,  SES-12 comsat launch, Falcon Heavy, TESS, GOES-S, Bangabandhu-1, NASA missions, ULA Atlas & Delta launches, SpySats and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings:

Jun 27-29: “SpaceX Dragon CRS-15 resupply launch to ISS, SpaceX Falcon Heavy & Falcon 9 launches, SpaceX SES-12 comsat. ULA Atlas USAF SBIRS GEO 4 missile warning satellite, SpaceX GovSat-1, CRS-14 resupply launches to the ISS, NRO & USAF Spysats, SLS, Orion, Boeing and SpaceX Commercial crew capsules, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, NH at Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings. Photos for sale

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