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DSCOVR launch by SpaceX Falcon 9
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launches the Deep Space Climate Observatory for NOAA, NASA and the Air Force in February 2015. SpaceX has launched payloads for the Air Force previously, but now it’s been chosen for the launch of a national security payload. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX today won an $82.7 million contract to launch a GPS-3 navigational satellite into orbit for the U.S. Air Force, marking the first national security mission for the California-based company.

The award was virtually in the bag for SpaceX because United Launch Alliance, the only other company certified to launch national security payloads, dropped out of the competition last November.

At the time, ULA said it couldn’t submit a compliant bid because of federal restrictions on the use of Russian-made RD-180 engines. But last month, a ULA vice president said his company was actually seeking to avoid a “cost shootout” with SpaceX.

The vice president of engineering, Brett Tobey, resigned after his remarks went public.

In a statement, Air Force Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves said the contract award to SpaceX “achieves a balance between mission success, meeting operational needs, lowering launch costs and reintroducing competition for National Security Space missions.”

The launch on a Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to take place at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in May 2018. This will be the second GPS-3 satellite to go into orbit. The next-generation Global Positioning System is expected to provide improved anti-jamming capabilities as well as improved accuracy for navigation and timing, the Air Force says.

SpaceX was certified for national security launches last May after a messy legal battle. The deal announced today covers the first of nine competitive contracts that the Air Force is expected to award by the end of 2018.

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