U.S. Widens Rocket Field

Rocket Field
Pentagon and NASA officials have reached an agreement intended to help small commercial space ventures compete for lucrative business to launch government satellites into space, while reducing costs and loosening the grip of giants Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. on such contracts.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Air Force and the Defense Department's spy-satellite office on Friday announced criteria for allowing privately built rockets to launch future military and civilian payloads.

By adopting a joint approach to evaluate future risks, the agreement aims to weigh cost and rocket reliability against the potential dangers of launch failures destroying satellites.

The most critical payloads, for example, won't be allowed to blast off on new, privately built rockets until those systems have a proven track record of at least several successful launches. Less critical payloads could sit atop new rockets that haven't yet flown and whose performance still needs to be validated, according to documents released by the Air Force.

The first-of-its-kind agreement "is the best balance of ensuring reliable access to space while encouraging competition and innovation," according to Erin Conaton, the Air Force official overseeing space programs. A NASA spokesman said that opening the door to new launch providers is expected to lower costs.

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