When SpaceX debuted the Falcon Heavy rocket in February, one of the biggest questions concerned who, exactly, would use the large booster and its 27 engines. Now we have an answer: the US Air Force, which on Thursday announced that it had selected the Falcon Heavy to launch its Air Force Space Command-52 satellite.
The military launch is presently scheduled to occur in September 2020 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Air Force will pay $130 million for the mission, which is higher than the standard rate for a Falcon Heavy launch due to the military's mission assurance requirements.
SpaceX has several other missions set for the Falcon Heavy before then, but this represents a big step for the company, as it means the Air Force has certified the rocket after just a single test flight. The Air Force Space Command-52 satellite flight is believed to be the first time that the Falcon Heavy rocket has competed head-to-head with a United Launch Alliance rocket for a military mission, and obviously it came out on top.
"SpaceX is honored by the Air Force's selection of Falcon Heavy to launch the competitively-awarded AFSPC-52 mission," SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement. "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. SpaceX is pleased to continue offering the American taxpayer the most cost-effective, reliable launch services for vital national security space missions."
The Falcon Heavy booster gives SpaceX a powerful new tool in its competition with United Launch Alliance, which has a sterling reliability record but generally higher prices. The Falcon Heavy rocket can hit all of the Department of Defense's nine reference orbits. Its $130 million cost is approximately one-third to one-half the cost of its proven competitor in this capacity, the Delta IV Heavy.
Before Monday's announcement it was not clear how many flights the Air Force would require before it certifies the Falcon Heavy rocket—typically it requires several flights. However, officials indicated to Ars that the military was evolving its certification process. Now, it seems clear that the Air Force was comfortable with data from the test flight in February and the more-than 50 flights of the Falcon 9 rocket that forms the three cores of each Falcon Heavy booster.