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US Air Force to Launch Mission Using SpaceX Rocket Instead of ULA's Atlas V

Jun 08, 2017 01:46 PM EDT
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SpaceX will launch miniature spaceplanes for the U.S. Air Force this August. This came as a surprise since the first four Orbital Test Vehicles were launched using ULA's Atlas V rocket.
(Photo : Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)

SpaceX bags another launch mission for the U.S. Air Force. Elon Musk's commercial space flight company will fly its first mission in August for the launch of the X-37B miniature spaceplane.

The announcement was made last Tuesday, June 6, by the U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. The military used to fly its top-secret missions using United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Atlas V rocket.

But for the X-37B miniature spaceplane launch in August, USAF will use a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. This will be the company's first mission for the Air Force. There is no reason provided why the government chose to launch X-37s using a SpaceX rocket instead of ULA's Atlas V.

"SpaceX will be sending the next Air Force payload up into space in August," U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a webcast during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The secretary further divulged information by saying that the SpaceX Falcon 9 will carry two miniature spaceplanes to space. Aside from being SpaceX's first mission with the U.S. Air Force aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, this will also be the biggest national security launch for the company.

The partnership between the Air Force and SpaceX may be the first, but it's already the fifth launch for the X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle. ULA's Atlas V rocket launched the first four X-37 into orbit. SpaceX and its entry into the U.S. Air Force mission provided the secretary more confidence when it comes to commercial space flight services.

"There are some very exciting things happening in commercial space that bring the opportunity for assured access to space at a very competitive price," Wilson added.

Even the director of Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, Randy Walden, said the capability to launch Orbital Test Vehicle on multiple platforms ensures a "robust launch capability" for their experiment designers. He also expressed his excitement over the new partnership between the U.S. Air Force and SpaceX.

"We are excited about this new partnership on creating flexible and responsive launch options and are confident in SpaceX's ability to provide safe and assured access to space for the X-37B program," Walden said.

The X-37 vehicles are reusable. The X-37B successfully completed its first landing at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida last May 2017.

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