NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) has awarded the SpaceX Falcon 9 with its Category 3 certification. The certification is NASA’s most prestigious and will allow SpaceX to compete for agency’s most important science missions.
“LSP Category 3 certification is a major achievement for the Falcon 9 team and represents another key milestone in our close partnership with NASA,” said SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell. “We are honored to have the opportunity to provide cost-effective and reliable launch services to the country’s most critical scientific payloads.”
With Category 3 certification, the Falcon 9 will be eligible for any NASA science mission including high-priority Class A and Class B missions. These high-priority missions can only be launched aboard Category 3 rockets. They are defined as having high national significance with little to no chance of flying again if a catastrophic failure should occur.
Category 3 classification requires a launch vehicle to have successfully completed between 3 and 14 consecutive missions. The specific number of successful launches a provider is expected to complete is dependent on the number of additional audits and reviews NASA’s LSP requests. It is, as yet unclear when NASA began auditing the Falcon 9 for Category 3 certification.
To date, the Falcon 9 has been launched 60 times. Six of those have been aboard upgraded Block 5 Falcon 9 rockets. The rocket suffered one partial failure in 2015 and one total failure in 2016 after it exploded on the launch pad. Currently, the Falcon 9 has been launched successfully 34 consecutive times.
In addition to offering SpaceX with the opportunity to bid on additional NASA missions, the certification will also open doors for NASA. Cost savings by launching aboard a Falcon 9 could free up several hundred million dollars. The savings could potentially fund several additional Discovery-class missions.