Friday, June 14, 2024

US Space Force Opens a New Round of Bidding for Launch Contracts

By itself, it's not really headline news that the US Space Force is announcing another round of launch contracts is open to be bid on. Yeah, it's not constant stuff that they do every day, but it's still done fairly often. The news here is the contractors being considered.  In particular, Blue Origin and their still never-flown New Glenn. 

The US Space Force announced Thursday that Blue Origin will compete with United Launch Alliance and SpaceX for at least 30 military launch contracts over the next five years. These launch contracts have a combined value of up to $5.6 billion.

This is the first of two major contract decisions the Space Force will make this year as the military seeks to foster more competition among its roster of launch providers, and reduce its reliance on just one or two companies.

For over a decade after the formation of United Launch Alliance from Boeing and Lockheed Martin, ULA was the pentagon's sole launch provider. In 2018, SpaceX started launching military payloads for the military. 

The approach for this new round of contracts, known as NSSL Phase 3, is different from the way the military previously bought launch services. Instead of grouping all national security launches into one monolithic contract, the Space Force is dividing them into two classifications: Lane 1 and Lane 2. 

The concept is that Lane 1 is smaller payloads to LEO. These launches will include smaller tech demos, experiments, and launches for the military’s new constellation of missile tracking and data relay satellites. While small satellites, this could eventually include hundreds or thousands of spacecraft managed by the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency. Lane 2 is for bigger payloads.

This fall, the Space Force will award up to three contracts for Lane 2, which covers the government's most sensitive national security satellites, which require "complex security and integration requirements." These are often large, heavy spacecraft weighing many tons and sometimes needing to go to orbits thousands of miles from Earth. The Space Force will require Lane 2 contractors to go through a more extensive certification process than required in Lane 1.

“Today marks the beginning of this innovative, dual-lane approach to launch service acquisition, whereby Lane 1 serves our commercial-like missions that can accept more risk and Lane 2 provides our traditional, full mission assurance for the most stressing heavy-lift launches of our most risk-averse missions," said Frank Calvelli, assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration.

The bidders also had to substantiate their plan to launch the rocket they proposed to use for Lane 1 missions by December 15 of this year. The selections are the two you'd expect - SpaceX Falcon Heavy (and Falcon 9 where it can lift the payload), along with ULA's new Vulcan - plus Blue Origin's New Glenn. The Vulcan has flown successfully once and may have its Cert-2 (certification) flight "No Earlier Than" this September. New Glenn has never flown but Blue Origin has also listed its first flight, which I'm assuming is their Cert-1 mission, as NET September. 

“As we anticipated, the pool of awardees is small this year because many companies are still maturing their launch capabilities,” said Brig. Gen. Kristin Panzenhagen, program executive officer for the Space Force's assured access to space division. “Our strategy accounted for this by allowing on-ramp opportunities every year, and we expect increasing competition and diversity as new providers and systems complete development."

The Space Force plans to open up the first on-ramp opportunity for Lane 1 as soon as the end of this year. Companies with medium-lift rockets in earlier stages of development, such as Rocket Lab, Relativity Space, Firefly Aerospace, and Stoke Space, will have the chance to join ULA, SpaceX, and Blue Origin in the Lane 1 pool at that time. The structure of the NSSL Phase 3 contracts allow the Pentagon to take advantage of emerging launch capabilities as soon as they become available, according to Calvelli.

First New Glenn on the pad at Launch Complex 36 for testing earlier this year. Image credit: Blue Origin.

I was a bit confused by the language of saying Lane 1 was for smaller, LEO satellites and other small payloads, then putting Falcon Heavy, Vulcan and New Glenn in Lane 1 when they clearly seem to be the ones necessary for Lane 2, but perhaps that means they become Lane 2 when it becomes real, and can also do Lane 1 missions, but Lane 1 contractors can't do Lane 2. Or something. 


  1. Typical clarity from our space agency. Reminds me of a old song. "Sometimes I think I will, then I think I won't."
    Ole Grump

  2. It seems that Blue Origins has spent more money on buying favors than they have on building and testing actual product.

    And that thing about Lane 1 and Lane 2, very weird. Falcon Heavy is definitely not Lane 1unless they're talking about launching a mini-constellation all at once.

  3. SpaceX should raise prices by 50%. The award process is solely intended to support / foster potential competitors to SpaceX. If any of the competitors ever get their rockets working, SpaceX can reduce prices though for now should take adavantage of the DOD's largesse. SpaceX could claim the cost increases are temporary and due to inflation, increased regulatory burdens and global warming.

    1. SpaceX's prices for military launches are already at 50% or more expensive than commercial launches due to all the requirements and restrictions placed on military cargo.

      They're making bank so keeping prices down just shows how stupid the whole system is.

  4. What is that makes SpaceX so successful. Is it Elon alone, the engineers and techs he hires, the test to failure then repeat? Why don't the other companies follow this path? It as if there is a curtain between SpaceX and the other companies. Or maybe the others just want to milk the cow.
    Ole Grump

  5. Congress (the opposite of PROgress) wants to spread the money around to satisfy constituents. Nevermind the cost, if it keeps the voters happy they will do it. SpaceX dragged the launch industry kicking and screaming into fixed-cost operations and BO doesn't like that and was dragging their feet and suing for their little slice of (underserved) pie. Go sit in a corner and play with yourself, Bezos. Put something into orbit or shut the hell up.

    Note that ULA and others are making the booster engines reusable, not the whole thing. Not a strong argument for rapid reusability!

    1. "...wants to spread the money around to satisfy constituents."

      It also happens to be a way for the contractors to funnel money back to the congress critters for their campaigns to stay in office. Cost plus contracts - nobody loses. Well, except for the taxpayers who pay for everything.

      "Note that ULA and others are making the booster engines reusable, not the whole thing. Not a strong argument for rapid reusability!"

      I'm guessing ULA is going to say the engines get too much saltwater intrusion and they're going back to just tossing everything.

      But maybe I'm too cynical.