Environment & Science

SpaceX nabs $83M military contract to deliver satellite into orbit

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk introduces SpaceX's Dragon V2 spacecraft, the company's next generation version of the Dragon ship designed to carry astronauts into space, at a press conference in Hawthorne, California on May 29, 2014.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk introduces SpaceX's Dragon V2 spacecraft, the company's next generation version of the Dragon ship designed to carry astronauts into space, at a press conference in Hawthorne, California on May 29, 2014.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

SpaceX has stolen another headline.

The Air Force has awarded the private rocket company a lucrative $82.7 million contract to deliver a GPS III satellite into orbit in 2018.

It’s the first competitive national security launch contract awarded in more than a decade, according to an Air Force statement Wednesday.

The Air Force bills it as a milestone in its effort to reintroduce competition into its procurement process for such contracts.

For SpaceX, the win puts it in distinguished company.

The contract was previously held by United Launch Alliance, a company created jointly by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. ULA dropped out of the competitive bidding process last November, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Air Force notes that SpaceX is one of only two companies (other than ULA) certified “to design, produce, qualify, and deliver a launch capability and provide the mission assurance support required to deliver national security space satellites to orbit.” It achieved that certification last year.

“This GPS III Launch Services contract award achieves a balance between mission success, meeting operational needs, lowering launch costs, and reintroducing competition for National Security Space missions,” Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Air Force program executive officer for space and the commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center at L.A. Air Force Base, said in a written statement.

So what is a GPS III satellite? The Air Force touts it as the next generation of GPS with upgrades such as anti-jamming capabilities and improved accuracy.

This Air Force contract is standalone, so there’s no guarantee SpaceX will get any military work beyond this particular launch. Some of the work will be performed here at the company’s Hawthorne facility.

“We greatly appreciate the confidence the U.S. Air Force has placed in our company and we look forward to working together towards the successful launch of the GPS III mission,” SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell said in an emailed statement to KPCC.

SpaceX has hit a number of historic milestones in recent years.

Earlier this month, the company landed a rocket booster upright on a platform in the ocean, an achievement that signals a cheaper future for the space industry, as expensive launch components that were previously one-use become reusable. The company already has plans to reuse that booster.

SpaceX was also the first private company to launch a resupply mission to space, successfully sending food and equipment to the International Space Station in 2012.

It also delivered the world’s first “inflatable room” for astronauts to the ISS.

Of course, SpaceX has had its setbacks. A Falcon 9 rocket broke up after liftoff in June last year.

But this also won’t be the company’s first attempt at putting a satellite into orbit. In 2013, SpaceX succeeded in its first launch of a major communications satellite.

With the new Air Force contract, 2018 is shaping up to be a big year for SpaceX. The GPS satellite launch is scheduled for May that year from Cape Canaveral, Florida. And on Wednesday the company announced it planned to send a Dragon capsule to Mars as early as 2018.