SpaceX will take over the launch of the US Air Force’s secretive X-37B ‘space plane’ – a first for Elon Musk’s aerospace company.
All four previous X-37B missions were overseen by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin who launched the ship from atop one of its Atlas V rockets.
Director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office Randy Walden said of the announcement: “We are excited about this new partnership on creating flexible and responsive launch options and are confident in SpaceX’s ability to provide safe and assured access to space for the X-37B program.”
The X-37B is boosted into space by a launch vehicle. It then re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere and lands as a plane.
The new contract was revealed during Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s appearance before the US Senate Armed Service Committee, just two months before the scheduled launch.
Contracts are usually announced around two years before a flight.
The Air Force hasn’t provided details about when the contract was awarded.
In March, SpaceX beat United Alliance to win its second Air Force launch contract valued at $96.5 million.
Mystery surrounds the X-37B missions as most of their payloads and activities have been classified. However, the Air Force claims the mini-space shuttle is simply testing technologies in orbit and carrying out experiments which can be returned to Earth.
The plane completed its last mission in May after a record-breaking 718 days.