A major benefit for private aerospace company SpaceX has been its close relationship with the U.S. government. On Sunday, SpaceX's symbiotic relationship with the U.S. military made another move when Falcon 9 successfully launched a spy satellite from California's Vandenberg Space Force Base.
Keeping Details Private
SpaceX carried the security payload courtesy of the United States National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The flight used a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket, launching and landing successfully - an expected outcome given SpaceX's mastery of spaceflight.
The NRO is an arm of the U.S. Intelligence Community and a subset of the Department of Defense that operates the country's fleet of spy satellites. Details about mission activities and payloads are typically kept under wraps.
This mission was no exception. The official NRO press kit gave little details on the spy satellite, describing it as "a national security payload designed, built, and operated by NRO."
According to agency officials, the flight marks the first time a used rocket has transported an NRO satellite. It also marks the 14th flight for SpaceX in 2022, putting the company on course to complete the highest number of flights in a calendar year.
SpaceX Gets Military Money
This isn't the first time SpaceX has handled spy equipment for the NRO. In February, the company carried the NROL-87 payload into orbit. As is customary, NRO kept the details of the flight secret.
Both launches fall under a $316 million National Security Space Launch contract that SpaceX signed with the Department of Defense. The Pentagon awarded contracts to SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance (ULA), signing both companies up to handle critical launches in the foreseeable future.
SpaceX and the ULA (a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin) beat out tough competition from Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin. Both companies won contracts to launch national security payloads for five years, expected to expire in 2025.
Starship On The Way
SpaceX's ability to handle numerous launches with its Falcon 9 rocket is impressive. Still, the Falcon 9 remains highly limited in its payload capacity. The aerospace company will undoubtedly look to boost progress with sporadic launches once it completes work on the Starship and Super Heavy vehicles.
The Starship and the Super Heavy combination is expected to help SpaceX process missions with much larger payloads. SpaceX is staking a great deal of resources on the project, shooting to launch within the year.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk claimed that the first orbital test flight for the Starship should happen by May. But the company is facing resistance as it looks to expand facilities in Texas.
A report from Bloomberg confirmed that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had withdrawn SpaceX's application to expand Starship launch facilities in Boca Chica, Texas. The withdrawal was reportedly due to the private aerospace company's failure to provide environmental information concerning the expansion.
SpaceX is also undergoing an environmental assessment from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). The FAA has extended the assessment window three times already, though SpaceX is confident it will soon pass the process and initiate test flights for the Starship.