May 20 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force is working as fast as it can to certify the ability of privately held Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, to compete for work launching military and intelligence satellites into orbit, a top general said Tuesday.
General William Shelton, who heads the Air Force Space Command, said SpaceX was likely to achieve certification in December or January, but the process could not be accelerated given the complex issues that still needed to be addressed.
"It's very difficult to pick up the pace on that," Shelton told reporters after a speech at a space conference hosted by the Space Foundation. In addition to certifying SpaceX's three launches, the Air Force was also looking at the firm's financial and auditing systems and manufacturing processes, he said.
SpaceX last month sued the Air Force for excluding it from a multibillion-dollar 36-launch contract awarded to United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of the two biggest U.S. weapons makers, Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co.
Shelton said the Air Force remained committed to increasing competition in the rocket launch market and was also pressing forward with other efforts to lower ULA's launch costs.
He said SpaceX could potentially compete for seven or eight launches before it received formal certification, with any awards contingent on approval.
He said the lawsuit surprised the Air Force, given that the military was dedicating $60 million and 100 people to the effort to certify SpaceX as a new competitor.
"Generally," he said, "the person you're going to do business with, you don't sue them."
U.S. lawmakers have pressed the Air Force to accelerate its efforts to open the rocket launch market to new entrants, citing the high cost of launches now provided by ULA. The issue has gotten fresh momentum given the use of Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines by the Lockheed-Boeing venture and rising tensions with Russia over its annexation of Crimea.
Shelton said the Air Force was aware of threats by some Russian officials that they could cut off the supply of engines for use in launching U.S. military satellites. But he said no official change in position had been conveyed to his office or the company. The head of ULA made similar comments on Monday.
Shelton said he personally favored starting work on a U.S. alternative rocket engine to help shore up the industrial base and reduce reliance on foreign-supplied parts.
But he noted the effort would likely cost more than $1 billion and could take five years to complete, and it remained unclear where the funding would come from.
At the same time, he cautioned against reading too much into Russian comments on the rocket engines, noting that for now, ties between the Russian company that builds the rockets and ULA were proceeding as "business as usual." (Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
Source and special thanks: Reuters