WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force is poised to start drafting its acquisition strategy for next phase of medium and heavy launch services contracts amid a fresh push from the House Armed Services Committee to consider “new and innovative” procurement methods.
Frank Calvelli, assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, told reporters at a June 28 briefing that he expects the strategy for the Phase 3 of the National Security Space Launch program to be completed by the end of the fall.
The Space Force in 2020 awarded five-year contracts to United Launch Alliance and SpaceX to provide lift services for more than 30 planned Phase 2 NSSL launches between fiscal 2022 and fiscal 2027. ULA, once the sole government large-class launch provider, won a 60% cut of the missions and SpaceX, a commercial launch company and new entrant to the national security market, secured the rest.
Although the launches included in the Phase 2 deal will continue through fiscal 2027, orders for those services end in fiscal 2024, and the Space Force plans to begin soliciting bids for Phase 3 that same year.
The Phase 2 NSSL contract was significant in that it opened what was a closed, sole-source market for major military space launches to more companies. Lawmakers including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., want the Space Force to consider more ways to spur competition in the next round of contracts.
In the committee’s version of the fiscal 2023 defense policy bill, lawmakers called for the service’s strategy to account for growth and innovation in the launch industry as well as the Space Force’s plan to shift to a hybrid architecture with smaller satellites located in more diverse orbital regimes. The committee also urged the service to consider a range of contracting approaches, including options to add providers during the execution of Phase 3 “to address manifest changes beyond the planned national security space unique launches at the time of the initial award.”
The service has yet to finalize its plans for Phase 3, Calvelli said. It’s considering the possibility of including smaller launch vehicle classes as part of the contract.
“There’s all these different providers out there, there’s some really great ones out there,” Calvelli said. “So, how do you take advantage of some of that and make sure that you’re able to be innovative in terms of allowing new folks to be on the contract?”
He highlighted one of the Space Force’s small launch contracting mechanisms, the Rocket Systems Launch Program, which coordinates launch services for non-NSSL missions and works with a growing pool of commercial providers. He said one consideration for the acquisition team will be whether to keep RSLP separate from the NSSL contract.
Calvelli told reporters he will travel this week to ULA’s factory in Decatur, Alabama, to get an update on the company’s progress with its Vulcan Centaur rocket, which will replace the company’s Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles and carry a propulsion system developed by space launch company Blue Origin. Development issues with Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine have slowed ULA’s launch plans, but the company plans to launch Vulcan this year.
“One of the first industry visits I make is down there to make sure they understand the importance of hitting their milestones with that engine delivery as well as with the launch,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Space Force is on track to launch two missions this week -- one procured through RSLP and one through NSSL.
The RSLP launch, dubbed STP-S28A, will fly Wednesday from Virgin Orbit National Systems’ air-launched rocket, LauncherOne. The rocket will carry seven experimental payloads. Based in El Segundo, Calif., Virgin Orbit National Systems is a national security focused company owned by Virgin Orbit. Wednesday’s mission will lift off from a Virgin Orbit 747-400 carrier aircraft, which will begin its flight at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
The NSSL mission, USSF-12, is scheduled to launch June 30 and will carry multiple payloads meant to reduce risk and mature technology for future programs. One of those satellites, the Wide-Field-of-View Testbed demonstration, was designed to mature technology for the Space Force’s Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared program.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.