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New entrant certification strategy announced
by Maj. Tracy Bunko Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
Washington DC (AFNS) Oct 17, 2011

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The U.S. Air Force, the National Reconnaissance Office, and NASA announced Oct. 14 their strategy for certifying commercial launch vehicles that could compete for future contracts for space launch missions to include Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, class launches.

The new entrant launch vehicle certification strategy is the latest step in a cooperative effort by the Air Force, NRO and NASA to further enable competition and expand the number of companies who are qualified to launch these missions.

The three agencies previously signed a Letter of Intent in October 2010, signaling their collaboration on launch requirements, and a Memorandum of Understanding in March, which outlined their plans for future EELV-class launch vehicle acquisition, including the need to coordinate their strategies for certifying new entrants into the field.

"This strategy is the best balance of ensuring reliable access to space while encouraging competition and innovation in the launch industry," said Under Secretary of the Air Force Erin Conaton.

"We are committed to providing a level playing field to all competitors in the interest of ensuring the best capability for our warfighters and the best value to the American public."

The risk-based certification framework is consistent with the existing NASA policy directive that allows new launch providers to compete for NASA non-crewed missions in all vehicle classes. This framework allows each agency to consider both the cost and mission of the payload and its confidence in the launch vehicle.

Payloads with higher risk tolerance can be flown on launch vehicles with a higher risk category rating, thus providing an opportunity for new entrant providers to gain experience launching government payloads.

Although the strategy framework is common to each agency, each agency has the flexibility within the plan to determine its own mission-unique requirements. As part of its implementation plan, the Air Force will publish a new entrant certification guide, which will describe the process for reaching certified status.

In addition, the service is seeking opportunities for future missions that could be made available for new entrants and which would be used to collect technical data needed for their certification.

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