By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top U.S. Air Force general on Tuesday said he favored competition for military rocket launches, but insisted the Air Force must stick to its high standards in certifying the Falcon 9 rocket, built by privately-held Space Exploration Technologies.
SpaceX is working through a detailed certification process with the Air Force for its Falcon 9 satellite so it can compete with United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp, to launch a National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite.
"Like every American, I love competition ... I root for SpaceX to come into the competition," General John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, told the annual Air Force Association conference. But he also said the United States could not afford to lose any satellite given the fragile state of most systems, outside of the Global Positioning System satellites.
The company has also sued the Air Force to get a larger share of the 36 launches now promised to ULA.
He said the U.S. military lost the ability to put satellites in space in the 1980s and again in the late 1990s, resulting in what he called "huge voids" in U.S. military capabilities, and could not afford to put itself in that position once again.
"The certification of SpaceX, hopefully by Dec. 1, is a big event. But if they're not ready on Dec. 1, we have to stand up and say that, and that's going to be difficult because I want competition," Hyten said.
"My fundamental requirement as the commander of Air Force Space Command ... is to make sure that the United States has access to space, assured, all the time. And that means it has to work every time," Hyten said.
Hyten's comments about the need for 100-percent launch success came after the explosion of a SpaceX test rocket last month. The incident raised concerns among U.S. government officials, although the Air Force has declined comment on the consequences of the explosion for the certification process.
The botched test flight involved a Falcon rocket demonstration vehicle known as Falcon 9R that was outfitted with three engines and a prototype landing system the company had been developing to fly its rockets back to the launch site for refurbishment and reuse. [ID:nL1N0QX06L]
A government official said the explosion could slow the ongoing U.S. certification process because the Air Force needed to understand exactly what went wrong. The rocket used in the launch was different than the Falcon 9, but it involved the same basic engine, the official said.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, editing by G Crosse)