SpaceX to launch US spy satellites with reusable rocket boosters

The US Pentagon Space Force has cleared Elon Musk's SpaceX to use recyclable boosters on the launches of top-secret spy satellites, according to the service.

The US Pentagon has turned to recycling in order to reduce the costs of future missions, granting SpaceX the green light to use recycled rocket boosters for Falcon Heavy launches of US classified military satellites, Bloomberg has reported.

The decision would grant Elon Musk's space business a temporary edge in its latest competition with a Boeing-Lockheed joint venture - known as the United Launch Alliance - that once had a monopoly on the Defense Department’s satellite launches.

There have only been three Falcon Heavy launches to date, with the most recent one taking place in 2019. By allowing three Falcon 9 boosters to be strapped together, Falcon Heavy missions are able to provide maximum thrust for heavier payloads. 

While one Falcon 9 has nine engines in its first stage, Falcon Heavy has 27, providing a thrust at lift-off which SpaceX says is equivalent to that of about 18 Boeing 747 aeroplanes. 

Approval was granted to SpaceX last June. However, it was not made public until recently, when the Space Force released a statement confirming that it had found the “recovery, refurbishment, and launch of SpaceX boosters utilises well-established processes.” 

This is not the first time that the Pentagon has partnered with SpaceX for its intelligence missions. SpaceX won its first military contract in 2016, to provide launch services for the National Security Space Launch’s predecessor. Since then, the US military has made use of recycled Falcon 9 boosters in several of its launches. 

Walter Lauderdale, chief of the Falcon Division within the Space Systems Command’s Assured Access to Space organisation, said in a statement that the use of recycled rocket boosters on Falcon 9 missions has “saved the US Space Force more than $64 million for GPS III missions and avoided additional costs for requirements changes while adding manifest flexibility for both the launch provider and our warfighters.” 

In 2020, SpaceX won a 40 per cent share of a contract with the US Department of Defense to launch payloads of classified Space Force missions between 2022 and 2027. As part of this contract, two Falcon Heavy launches are expected by the end of the year, with one of them likely taking place sometime between October and December, according to the Space Force. 

Over the past eight years, SpaceX has launched more than 100 missions using the Falcon 9 with reusable boosters, most of them commercial.

In contrast, the Air Force is still reviewing certification for the United Launch Alliance to use its Vulcan rocket with a new US-made motor from Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, to replace the previous Russian-made RD-180. The alliance plans a test launch of the new motor in December.

United Launch Alliance won 25 of the 42 military launches planned for the Air Force's Phase 2, with the other 17 going to SpaceX. The agency is currently reviewing its acquisition strategy for Phase 3, which would include 39 national security launches of US military and intelligence satellites between 2025 and 2027.

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