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​A SpaceX Falcon 9 sits on the launchpad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on March 13, 2017. The rocket is intended to carrying a commercial communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit. SpaceX photo.

​SpaceX was awarded a $96.5 million contract on Tuesday to provide launch services for the third GPS III satellite, which is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla., in February 2019. Elon Musk’s space exploration company beat out United Launch Alliance in a competitive process. Both bids “adequately met our criteria” on technical standards, and price was the decisive factor, said Claire Leon, launch enterprise director at Space and Missile Systems Center, in a phone conference with reporters Wednesday. The launch is SpaceX’s second contract in the GPS III program after being selected in April of 2016 to launch the second GPS III satellite in May 2018. Leon said SMC is “confident [SpaceX] can get back on track for this mission” after a Falcon 9 rocket exploded during a pre-launch text last September. She said the company has “changed their configuration” and “adjusted their procedures” in the wake of that accident, but that they have “more work to do before we have an Air Force launch.”

This contract is the second awarded in Phase 1A of SMC’s competitive launch services acquisition strategy. A third is currently in source selection with an award due in June, Leon said. Twelve more launches will be opened for competition through two requests for proposals. A draft RFP for the first seven, including four GPS III satellite launches, is expected “in the next few months,” Leon said, with a second draft RFP for the final five launches due by the end of 2017. SpaceX will be able to compete for any of these contracts, Leon said, though some would require the use of the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which has yet to receive certification for national security missions. Services for each of the 12 launches will be contracted through individual awards with the possible exception of the four GPS III satellite launches, which may be awarded as a block contract. Leon said the competitive launch strategy is key to the Air Force’s goal of providing “assured access to space,” and that the program is “on a very positive path.”