The Department of Defense may have to stop relying wholly on expendable rockets and look to find reusable alternatives for space missions, according to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2019. This is a marked change in policy that could result in SpaceX winning more military launch contracts, and could spell trouble for the United Launch Alliance (ULA) — a Lockheed Martin and Boeing joint venture — that used to be the government’s top choice for launches.
The new congressional conference report stated that DoD’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle — or EELV — program will be renamed the National Security Space Launch program, effective March 2019. To carry out the goals of this new effort, The U.S. Air Force must consider both expendable and reusable launch vehicles for its contracts. In the event that a reusable rocket is available but not selected, the branch of the Armed Forces will need to provide Congress with a reason why.
The House has already passed this proposal and in the following weeks, it will be sent to the Senate. If approved, it will be passed to the President for a signature to become law.
This would be a monumental change to Air Force launch contract protocol, and could result in some major wins for SpaceX’s flight-proven Falcon 9 rocket.
Before SpaceX settled a 2015 lawsuit with the Air Force, the branch of the military would exclusively award contracts to ULA. This legal victory put Elon Musk’s aerospace company in the race for government contracts, which it has since proven itself capable of completing. Now that the government is proactively trying to utilize more cost-effective launch systems and SpaceX is further ramping up its recovery efforts, an uptick in awarded contracts for Musk’s firm seems much more likely.
ULA has a plan in the works that it says could cut its launch costs by more than 70 percent. But while it is still drafting SpaceX is launching.
The company has conducted 13 launches since the start of 2018, this includes the demo mission of the Falcon Heavy rocket — SpaceX’s most powerful launch system. While the Falcon Heavy wasn’t recovered in one piece, SpaceX seems to be getting Falcon 9 recoveries down to a science.
This upcoming year could see more SpaceX launches than ever before.