By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force said on Tuesday it was close to certifying a second company to launch military and intelligence satellites into space, and announced a review of the process used to vet new entrants.
Currently, the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, is the only company certified to launch large military and intelligence satellites.
Lieutenant General Samuel Greaves, commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, said in a statement late on Tuesday that the Air Force had missed a December deadline for certification, but added that "a new entrant is close."
Greaves did not name the company, but the Air Force's top military acquisition official said last year she was optimistic privately held Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, would be certified to carry out launches.
The Air Force previously said it hoped to complete certification in December so SpaceX could be eligible to compete for the launch of a National Reconnaissance Office satellite, a contract that was due to be awarded by Dec. 31.
No announcement has been made on which company will launch that satellite and Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek declined comment on when it will be made.
The Air Force also said it planned to reexamine its certification process, developed in response to major failures and which has resulted in 79 successful launches with no failures since 1999.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the service was committed to reintroducing competition into the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, and seek ways to streamline the process.
"I am directing a review of our new entrant certification process by an independent team to capture the lessons learned so we can enhance competition for launch services," James added.
SpaceX had no immediate comment on the statement.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal. Editing by Andre Grenon)