The US military has awarded providers SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) another eight launch contracts worth a total of $846 million that the companies will be tasked with completing over the next two or so years.
The US Space Systems Command (SSC) announced the decision on May 26th, providing some basic information about which missions were going to which provider. Per a highly unusual National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 competition that ULA and SpaceX ultimately won in 2020, all major US military launches scheduled between 2020 and 2024 (at minimum) are to be split 60:40 between the companies, and this latest set of missions – more ‘funded’ than ‘awarded’ – are no different. Curiously, they also appear to indicate less of a cost cap than usual between SpaceX and its lone US competitor.
SpaceNews author Sandra Erwin has done an excellent job collating extra information about the eight launches rewarded. The latest batch continue a bizarre trend of the US military awarding complex, high-performance missions to ULA’s Vulcan Centaur, a rocket that has never flown and is unlikely to debut before 2023. Meanwhile, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which is the most flown and most statistically reliable rocket currently in operation, continues to be used primarily for much simpler launches to lower orbits.
With this latest batch, ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket was assigned GPS III SV07 (headed to a medium Earth orbit); WGS-11, a geostationary military communications satellite; and USSF-16, USSF-23, and USSF-43, which are classified and unidentified. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket was assigned USSF-124 (headed to low Earth orbit), USSF-62 (a military weather satellite headed to a polar orbit), and SDA Tranche 1 (a set of small communications satellites, some built by SpaceX, headed to a low polar orbit).
According to SpaceNews, ULA was awarded $566 million (~$113 million per launch) and SpaceX was awarded $280 million for its three contracts, meaning that SpaceX is charging an unusually high ~$93 million per Falcon 9 launch. Each of SpaceX’s three missions will almost certainly allow for Falcon 9 booster recovery, making the high cost even more odd.
Through its adherence to a bizarre 60:40 contract split that can only be described as an effort to ensure that ULA – possibly already predetermined to win before the competition began – would receive a lion’s share of contracts, has firmly hitched several near-term carts to a rocket that still hasn’t launched 22 months after its victory. Including a demonstration mission carrying a Moon lander and one or two NASA Cargo Resupply Services (CRS) missions carrying Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser space plane and cargo vehicle, Vulcan Centaur now has at least 11 launches – 10 for the US government – planned in 2023 and 2024.
Blue Origin, a company that has yet to deliver a single flightworthy BE-4 rocket engine to ULA, would need to deliver at least 22 engines over the next two or so years to avoid delaying Vulcan’s manifest. ULA’s existing rockets, Atlas V and Delta IV, each completed four launches in their first two years of service. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 was no different, launching four times in its first 2.5 years of operation. Only time will tell if Vulcan can more than double the early records of its closest rocket siblings.