WASHINGTON — The battle between military space juggernaut United Launch Alliance and its upstart rival SpaceX continues, with the two companies splitting a collection of launch contracts worth $739 million awarded by the Air Force on Tuesday.

ULA, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, picked up a $442 million award for three launches, while Elon Musk’s SpaceX nabbed a $297 million contract for another three launches. Each company will be responsible for “launch vehicle production, mission integration, mission launch operations/spaceflight worthiness, and mission unique activities,” according to the contract award.

ULA will deliver the following payloads as part of its contract:

  • Silent Barker, a secret payload developed by the Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office, which will improve situational awareness after it is launched in fiscal year 2022. 
  • SBIRS GEO-5, the fifth geostationary satellite in the Space Based Infra Red Sensor constellation, will improve early warning for missile launches. SBIRS GEO-5 is set to be launched in FY21.
  • SBIRS GEO-6, the sixth geostationary satellite in the SBIRS constellation, could be launched in FY22, but no firm date has been set. 

Meanwhile SpaceX will launch these payloads:

  • NROL-85, a classified intelligence payload launched for the NRO, expected to be launched in FY21
  • NROL-87, another classified NRO payload set for a FY21 launch date.
  • AFSPC-44, an Air Force satellite also set to be launched in FY21. The service hasn’t released much information about this payload’s capabilities or purpose.

The contracts were awarded by the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center as part of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

In a statement, Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of SMC and program executive officer for space programs, defended the service’s strategy of awarding launch contracts in a way that balances rewarding low-price bids while also maintaining competition among rocket makers.

“The competitive award of these EELV launch service contracts directly supports SMC’s mission of delivering resilient and affordable space capabilities to our nation while maintaining assured access to space” he said.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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