WASHINGTON — United Launch Alliance and SpaceX have won the Space Force’s next-generation rocket contract, locking the two companies in as the Defense Department’s launch providers of choice for the foreseeable future.
ULA — a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing — was awarded $337 million, while SpaceX will be getting $316 million for phase two of the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program, the Pentagon announced Aug. 7. They beat out Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman.
Phase 2 of the NSSL program is the U.S. military’s vehicle for ordering launch services from fiscal year 2022 to 2027. ULA is slated to get 60 percent of the manifest, with SpaceX getting the remainder.
“We don’t think this is the last round of innovation that we’re going to see,” Will Roper, the Air Force’s acquisition executive, told reporters during an Aug. 7 roundtable. “Although we’re excited for the next five years, we’re looking ahead to ‘Phase 3’ five years from now and wondering what new leap-ahead, lower-cost technologies might be on the forefront to make assured access to space not just assured, but cheaper.”
The award pays for the first three missions in 2022, which include two ULA launches and one for SpaceX. All are classified, Roper said.
There is no ceiling on the number of launches that the Pentagon can order in Phase 2, but Roper expects about 32 missions. Funding for those missions will be distributed in future task orders.
The NSSL Phase 2 award moves the U.S. military one step closer to eliminating its dependence on the Russian RD-180 engine, which is used in ULA’s Atlas V rocket. The Defense Department has until 2022 to stop RD-180 procurement, and Roper said he was confident was on “a low risk path” to ensure it will meet that deadline.
For the Phase 2 SpaceX offered the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, which are both certified and in use. ULA proposed a new rocket, the Vulcan Centaur, which is under development and expected to make its maiden flight in 2021.
“Vulcan Centaur is the right choice for critical national security space missions and was purpose built to meet all of the requirements of our nation’s space launch needs,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO, said in a statement.
Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman were also in the process of creating new launch systems under a 2018 agreement with the Space and Missile Systems Center. That organization will now work with those companies on how to best halt the government’s involvement in that development, Roper said.
“We will tie off the [launch service agreement] contracts as soon as we can, at a point that makes sense,” he said. “We want to make sure that work that’s in flux, that we’re able to document what the vendors have done. Where the government has rights to the data and the work, we want to make sure we retain them.”
Unless the companies protest the contract award, the next opportunity for Northrop, Blue Origin or other challengers to compete for national security launches is NSSL Phase 3, but the department’s approach and timeline for that effort is still being determined.
“If funding were available for a Phase 3 launch service agreement, there’s no prohibition on how early we could start Phase 3,” said Roper, who added that studies have shown “some strategic benefits for doing that sooner rather than later.”
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.