Elon Musk’s SpaceX company has been in the news recently for their ability to land a launch vehicle back at the launch site after a mission. They are working to make the reuse of launch vehicles routine which will lower the cost of launches substantially.
The DoD is heavily involved in exploiting space as part of its mission to protect the security of the U.S. It launches satellites for reconnaissance, communications and defense. It is inevitable that future wars will include critical support from military assets in Earth orbit.
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense, Space & Security. It was formed in 2006 to provide launch services to the U.S. government. It was the only government launch provider for ten years and its customers included the Department of Defense (DoD), NASA and other government agencies.
Musk wanted a piece of the DoD action for SpaceX and pursued the matter in the courts until he won the right to launch vehicle for the DoD in 2014. SpaceX’s first job for the DoD was to launch a National Reconnaissance Office satellite in May of this year.
The Air Force X-37B is a highly classified miniature unmanned version of the space shuttle which was developed to carry out long mission in orbit for the DoD. It is about thirty feet long, ten feet tall and has a wing span of about fifteen feet. It weights about eleven thousand pounds. The Air Force does not provide details about what equipment is carried in the X-37B cargo hold. A fact sheet for the X-37B only said, “The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America's future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.”
Boeing built two X-37B for the DoD. So far, it has flown four missions. The last mission lasted for seven hundred days. The fifth mission of the X-37B will be launched in August of this year aboard a SpaceX launch vehicle.
One reason that the DoD is using SpaceX to launch missions is that they can provide a cheaper service than alternative launch companies. The ULA that had been the only launch company serving the DoD before Musk took them to court has successfully launched over a hundred missions. Their cost per launch is currently about a hundred million dollars which they are working to reduce. The cost of a launch by SpaceX is currently about sixty million dollars. At a forty percent reduction in cost, it is easy to see why DoD is attracted to SpaceX.
The ULA complained recently that they were not even given the chance to bid on the X-37B mission. A representative for ULA said in an email that “ULA remains fully committed to continuing to support America’s national security missions with world-class launch services.” ULA says that with multiple launch platforms, it can provide “launch readiness” at any time which is something its competitors cannot do.
Contracts from DoD will be a major source of income for SpaceX in addition to the supply missions it has been flying for NASA in support of the International Space Station. Next year, SpaceX will begin flying astronauts to the ISS, its most ambitious launch project.