Elon Musk's SpaceX has been certified to launch its Falcon 9 rocket in the latest victory for the private commercial space venture.
The Air Force examined data from three Falcon 9 flights last year and has certified the rocket, bringing SpaceX a step closer to challenging major aerospace companies that have essentially monopolized the U.S. space program, the Los Angeles Times reported.
SpaceX, which has documented nine Falcon 9 launches altogether, plans to fulfill the rest of the government's requirements later this year. The firm aims to break into the lucrative Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, which has only worked with one company so far.
Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. have launched spy satellites for the Pentagon for eight years, operating jointly as United Launch Alliance. The government hasn't looked for competitive bids to build the satellites, which can cost more than $1 billion, and SpaceX is hoping to be a gamechanger.
While it cleared this recent hurdle, SpaceX still has a ways to go.
"Despite the certification, I'm sure there are some people in the Air Force who are worried about the reliability of the Falcon 9 going forward," said Loren Thompson, a SpaceX critic and aerospace policy analyst for the Lexington Institute in Virginia, as quoted by the L.A. Times. "So, SpaceX is not a shoo-in to win the next competition for military launch services."
Officially known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., SpaceX challenged the Air Force by filing a bid protest in U.S. Federal Claims Court in April. The government has since responded by filing a motion to dismiss the suit, which claims that the Air Force's long-term contract with United Launch Alliance will cost taxpayers billions.
"There should be no more sole-sourcing under this program when competition is an option," Musk said.