SpaceX wins $130 million Air Force launch contract, marking a first for Falcon Heavy


An automated camera documents the Falcon Heavy rocket’s first ascent from Kennedy Space Center in February with SpaceX’s hangar in the foreground. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

(This article first appeared on June 21, 2018)

The U.S. Air Force has awarded a $130 million firm-fixed-price contract to SpaceX for the launch of its classified AFSPC-52 satellite on a Falcon Heavy rocket.

It’s the first national security contract won for SpaceX’s heavy-lift rocket, which had its first test flight in February. AFSPC-52 is tue to lift off in 2020 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The launch will support the Air Force Space Command’s “mission of delivering resilient and affordable space capabilities to our nation while maintaining assured access to space,” Lt. Gen. John Thompson, Air Force program executive officer for space and commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, said today in a news release.

In an emailed statement, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said her company was “honored by the Air Force’s selection of Falcon Heavy to launch the competitively awarded AFSPC-52 mission.”

“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 said. “SpaceX is pleased to continue offering the American taxpayer the most cost-effective, reliable launch services for vital national security space missions.”

This week’s award served as the first indication that the Falcon Heavy had been certified for national security launches. The rocket comprises three Falcon 9 rocket cores, and is capable of more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. That makes it the most powerful rocket currently in operation.

SpaceX had to demonstrate the capabilities of its Falcon 9 rocket several times before the Air Force certified that launch vehicle, but military officials apparently acquired enough data from the Falcon Heavy’s single launch and the Falcon 9’s track record to give their go-ahead for AFSPC-52.

The Falcon Heavy’s next launch is set for later this year. It’s due to loft a variety of payloads into orbit for the Air Force’s STP-2 technology demonstration mission.

Three months ago, the Air Force awarded a $354.8 million contract to United Launch Alliance, SpaceX’s main competitor, for two launches relating to the AFSPC-8 and AFSPC-12 satellite missions. Those Atlas 5 rocket launches are also set for 2020.

Blue Origin, the Kent, Wash.-based space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, is aiming to have its New Glenn rocket certified for national security launches. New Glenn is still under development, with its maiden launch currently scheduled in 2020. Orbital ATK, which was recently acquired by Northrop Grumman, is in the hunt for national security launches as well.

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GeekWire aerospace and science editor Alan Boyle is an award-winning science writer and veteran space reporter. Formerly of, he is the author of “The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference.” Follow him via, on Twitter @b0yle, and on Facebook and MeWe.

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