On Friday afternoon, the U.S. Air Force answered one of the big questions that had hung over the U.S. launch industry for more than a year: Which two companies will be selected to compete for national security launch contracts from 2022 to 2026?
During a video call with reporters, William Roper, the Air Force’s deputy secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, said United Launch Alliance will receive about 60 percent of launch orders and SpaceX the other 40 percent. Two other bidders, Northrop Grumman with his Omega rocket and Blue Origin with his New Glenn vehicle, will not receive any prizes.
“The ability to meet our technical factors to perform the mission is most important,” Roper said in response to a question about the Air Force’s criteria. Secondary factors included past performance, ability to work with small businesses, and total estimated price. The military has nine reference lanes for large and complex payloads that these missiles must meet.
United Launch Alliance
United Launch Alliance (ULA), the military’s only provider of national security launches, has long had to adapt to compete for this new round of awards. Specifically, Congress banned the military from purchasing the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine after 2022. This motor powers ULA’s most cost-effective rocket, the Atlas V booster.
For this reason, ULA has developed a new booster, Vulcan-Centaur, which can meet the needs of the Air Force while using a US-based propulsion system. The rocket’s first stage is powered by the BE-4 engine, which was developed and manufactured by Blue Origin.
While this missile may debut in 2021, that’s not certain, as technical problems almost always arise when developing new launch systems. Roper said the company can continue to use the Atlas V booster until Vulcan is ready, as congressional law only prohibits the purchase of new engines, rather than their use. A dozen of these engines are available.
“I have a lot of confidence in the squad we made today,” said Roper. “We have a very low-risk path of getting off the RD-180 engines in time and not having to dive into that surplus we have available.”
Of the bidders, only SpaceX has rockets in hand for these contracts. Both the single-stick Falcon 9 rocket and the triple-core Falcon Heavy rocket have track records and the Air Force has certified both for national security missions.
From 2022 to 2026, Roper said the Air Force expects to award a total of 30 to 34 contracts for missions. Assuming the 60-40 split in total contracts, this will likely result in contract values of about $3.5 billion for United Launch Alliance and $2.5 billion for SpaceX – but these are rough estimates and the US Air Force has no specific amounts. released. These awards ensure that ULA and SpaceX will continue a long-standing rivalry.
As part of Friday’s announcement, the Air Force said that ULA has been assigned the USSF-51 and USSF-106 missions scheduled for launch in the second quarter of fiscal year 2022 and fourth quarter of fiscal year 2022, respectively. has been allocated USSF-67, slated for launch in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2022. Launch service support missions and launch service contracts will be issued to ULA for $337 million and SpaceX for $316 million for launch services to meet the fiscal year 2022 launch dates. (The latter value suggests that the SpaceX mission will likely fly on the Falcon Heavy rocket.)
In October 2018, the Air Force awarded Launch Service Agreement (LSA) contracts to ULA, Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin to support the development of their missiles. These funds were intended to help the companies make competitive bids for the mid-2020 launch contracts (SpaceX was out of the question, likely because the missiles were already flying).
Not all of those development funds have been paid, however, and those contracts will now be phased out to the losses of bidders Northrop and Blue Origin. “We will work with those two companies to determine the appropriate point to close their work under the LSA agreements,” Roper said. “The goal isn’t to wear them indefinitely. The goal of an LSA was to create a more competitive environment.”
Blue Origin will likely continue development on its New Glenn rocket, which probably wasn’t ready to launch military missions by 2022 anyway. The company, founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, will also play for commercial missions and try to bid for military launches in 2027 and beyond.
Less clear is the fate of Northrop’s Omega rocket, which is unlikely to have a way forward without guaranteed revenue from military launch contracts.