SpaceX, ULA win multibillion-dollar military launch contract years in the making

Ending a process that began almost two years ago, the US Air Force (now Space Force) has selected SpaceX and ULA to be the recipients of a multibillion-dollar series of launch contracts that stretch into the late 2020s.

Known as the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Services Acquisition (LSA), the US Air Force publicly began the initiative in Q4 2018. In May 2019, the LSA process was opened to bidders and the military ultimately received serious proposals from SpaceX, the United Launch Alliance (ULA), Northrop Grumman, and Blue Origin.

While the latter three companies proposed their respective next-generation rockets – still in development – to complete at least a dozen military launches from 2022 to 2027, SpaceX offered up Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. As of April 2020, Falcon 9 officially usurped ULA’s Atlas V rocket to become the United States’ most prolific operational rocket. While ULA has technically included Atlas V as a backup option in its NSSL Phase 2 bid, the company’s primary launch vehicle is Vulcan Centaur, scheduled to fly for the first time no earlier than July 2021.

(Teslarati – ULA/NGIS/Blue Origin/SpaceX)

As a result, failing to award SpaceX at least one of the two NSSL LSA Phase 2 slots – split 60:40 – would have almost assuredly made a farce of the US military competition. The real question, then, was who would win the other award, and whether the US military would shock the industry with a final decision more technical than political. As previously discussed on Teslarati, the fact that four separate companies submitted serious bids for Phase 2 gave the US military a significant opportunity.

“For dubious reasons, the US Air Force (USAF) has structured the NSSL Phase 2 acquisition in such a way that – despite there being four possible competitors – only two will be awarded contracts at its conclusion. The roughly ~34 launch contracts up for grabs would be split 60:40 between the two victors, leaving two competitors completely empty handed.” — August 14th, 2019

Despite repeated petitions by Blue Origin and the attempted intervention of lawmakers in Congress, the US military remained ardently against awarding Phase 2 launch contracts to more than two providers throughout the competition. Barring a successful protest from snubbed bidders Northrop Grumman and/or Blue Origin, it appears that the military ultimately won the battle, selecting two providers.

Omega. (Northrop Grumman)
New Glenn. (Blue Origin)

Instead of awarding even just a handful of the 34 launch contracts up for grabs to Northrop Grumman, the US Space Force is all but guaranteeing that the company’s Omega rocket will die in the cradle without an immediate slew of additional military contracts. There’s a chance that NSSL Phase 1 LSA funding will continue, likely giving NG the money it needs to complete Omega’s development, but that’s far from guaranteed.

Funded entirely out of Jeff Bezos’ pocket, Blue Origin’s ambitious New Glenn reusable rocket is more insulated from a lack of US military contracts and the company could also continue to receive several hundred million dollars as part of an LSA Phase 1 award. For Blue Origin, already set on entering New Glenn into the commercial launch market, military funding could ensure that the company does the extra work needed to certify the rocket and its production facilities for military launches.

Down the road, that means that the US Air Force, Space Force, or National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) could all feasibly award Blue Origin or Northrop Grumman launch contracts outside the 34 Phase 2 missions without having to start a development and certification process that can take a year or more from scratch.

SpaceX completed its first operational US military Falcon 9 launch on June 30th. (Richard Angle)

Regardless of the missed opportunities, the NSSL LSA Phase 2 contract is a major win for SpaceX and guarantees the company’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets some 13-14 military launch contracts over a five-year period. For ULA, the victory is likely a massive relief, given that the company’s next-generation (expendable) Vulcan Centaur rocket has next to no chance of sustaining itself with commercial launch contracts. Much like Atlas V in the last decade of the rocket’s life and Delta IV over most of its two-decade career, ULA’s Vulcan rocket will continue the trend of relying almost exclusively on US military contracts.

This time around, however, the US military’s preferential treatment of ULA is nakedly obvious. At almost every turn, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets can provide the same launch services as ULA for anywhere from 20-50% less. For the few missions (direct to geostationary) where ULA’s Atlas V, Delta IV, and Vulcan rockets might actually have a step up over SpaceX, the US could have easily awarded ULA the smaller 40% share or even split that 40% share with Blue Origin or Northrop Grumman, giving SpaceX the lion’s share and likely saving hundreds of millions of dollars – if not $1B+ – over the next seven years.

Instead, business (more or less) as usual will continue for at least another decade as the US military functionally subsidizes ULA’s existence by prioritizing a more expensive rocket to achieve the same outcome. The first LSA Phase 2 launches are currently scheduled to begin no earlier than (NET) 2022.

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Eric Ralph: Eric Ralph is Teslarati's senior spaceflight reporter and has been covering the industry in some capacity for almost half a decade, largely spurred in 2016 by a trip to Mexico to watch Elon Musk reveal SpaceX's plans for Mars in person. Aside from spreading interest and excitement about spaceflight far and wide, his primary goal is to cover humanity's ongoing efforts to expand beyond Earth to the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere.
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