The Department of Defense is sticking with SpaceX and ULA launch as its two primary launch services for U.S. national security missions for the foreseeable future.
The U.S. Air Force said on Friday it awarded ULA launch and Elon Musk’s SpaceX $653 million in combined military ULA launch contracts under the Pentagon’s next-generation, multibillion-dollar launch capability program.
In an announcement Friday(opens in new tab) (Aug. 7), U.S. Space Force and Air Force officials said SpaceX and ULA have won military ULA launch contracts potentially worth billions to ULA, ULA launch national security payloads over the next five years, with ULA launch receiving 60% of the satellite launch contracts and SpaceX receiving 40%.
The awards were part of a four-way ULA launch services competition known as National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement announced in 2018. SpaceX and ULA were up against Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin.
SpaceX was actually left out of the first round, with the Air Force awarding development dollars to ULA, Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin in the amount of $967 million, $792 million and $500 million respectively. But the California-based rocket builder ultimately won a piece of the prize.
The two companies lay claim to billions of dollars in lucrative military contracts for a span of five years that competitors Blue Origin, the space company of Amazon.com Inc owner Jeff Bezos, and Northrop Grumman also competed for.
“This was an extremely tough decision and I appreciate the hard work industry completed to adapt their commercial ULA launch systems to affordably and reliably meet our more stressing national security requirements,” Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Space and Missile Systems Center Launch Enterprise, said in a statement.
Blue Origin Chief Executive Bob Smith said in a statement he was “disappointed” in the Pentagon’s decision, adding that the company will continue to develop its heavy-lift New Glenn rocket “to fulfill our current commercial contracts, pursue a large and growing commercial market, and enter into new civil space ULA launch contracts.”
The Air Force selected SpaceX’s existing Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket for national security launches, along with ULA launch new Vulcan Centaur rocket, which is still in development. Currently estimated to make its first flight in 2021, ULA launch Vulcan Centaur will end the country’s reliance on the Russian-built RD-180 engine currently used by the company’s current workhorse, the Atlas V rocket.
The Department of Defense has been trying to end reliance on the Russian engine and awarded ULA the first-round development funding to help develop the new rocket. The Vulcan Centaur will be powered by a Blue Origin BE-4 engine.
The awards are part of the Pentagon’s 2014 mandate from Congress to curb its dependency on rockets using Russia’s RD-180 engine and transition to U.S.-made rockets for launching Washington’s most sensitive national security payloads to space.
So far, the Air Force has ordered three missions for 2022(opens in new tab) under the new deals. SpaceX will earn $316 million to launch one mission, designated USSF-67, in the latter part of 2022. ULA was awarded $337 million to ULA, ULA launch two missions — USSF-51 and USSF-106 — scheduled for the second and fourth quarters of fiscal year 2022, respectively.
The program, called National Security Space ULA launch Phase 2, is aimed at “building a competitive industry base that we hope doesn’t just help military and national security missions, but that helps our nation continue to compete and dominate in space,” Roper added.
Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman both expressed disappointment for not being chosen in the phase 2 contracts, but are expected to continue development of their respective ULA launch vehicles. Blue Origin is currently developing a new orbital rocket, the New Glenn, while Northrop Grumman is developing the OmegA booster for future launches.