US: NASA has certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 to launch the space agency’s scientific spacecraft, opening up the floor for SpaceX to routinely compete for missions comparable to Hubble Space Telescope, the Curiosity Mars rover (Mars Science Laboratory), Cassini (a Saturn orbiter), and James Webb Space Telescope, among many others.
Falcon 9 is capable of extremely impressive performance beyond Earth orbit, that performance only becomes truly competitive with ULA’s Atlas V rocket when Falcon 9 is launched as a fully expendable vehicle. Regardless, both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are all but guaranteed to cost far less than a comparably capable Atlas V, even assuming no recovery attempt is made.
Gwynne Shotwell, COO and President of SpaceX stated, “LSP Category 3 certification is a major achievement for the Falcon 9 team and represents another key milestone in our close partnership with NASA. We are honored to have the opportunity to provide cost-effective and reliable launch services to the country’s most critical scientific payloads.”
Falcon 9 routinely launches payloads as heavy as that but only to comparatively low-energy orbits around Earth – to launch the same massive payloads beyond Earth orbit requires far more energy and thus rocket performance. Perhaps the most encouraging part of this NASA certification is the demonstration that NASA’s trust in SpaceX rockets has grown to the point that Falcon Heavy certification is likely just a matter of time. In order to qualify for “LSP Category 3” certification, any given rocket must launch anywhere from 3-6 times depending on what the certification board feels is necessary.
SpaceX has at least two Falcon Heavy launches scheduled for 2019. Combined with the rocket’s nearly flawless February 2018 launch debut, those two launches – commsat Arabsat 6A and the Air Force’s STP-2 mission – could satisfy NASA LSP and allow the agency to certify Falcon Heavy for flagship science missions.