WASHINGTON — U.S. Space Force officials will meet with industry executives in Los Angeles this week to discuss the finer points of the upcoming tender for the launch of the National Security Space.
Companies expect to hear details about the Space Force’s plan to attract new launch providers to compete for as many as 70 missions projected for the 2025-2034 time frame.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Colonel Douglas Pentecost, deputy program executive officer for Assured Access to Space, told reporters Feb. 24.
The Space Force released two draft requests on Feb. 16 for proposals for the dual-track National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 3. One is for lower launch missions and the other is for the most demanding heavy payload launches.
Following this week’s meetings with industry, a second draft of RFP will be published in May and a final one this summer. The Space Force will then spend about a year evaluating bids.
United Launch Alliance and SpaceX won NSSL Phase 2 five-year contracts in 2020 to fly approximately 35 missions.
For Phase 3, the Space Force is projecting somewhere between 60 and 70 missions. About 30 of those will be less demanding “Lane 1” launches that could be performed by emerging launch providers flying mid-sized vehicles. The other 40 in “Lane 2” would be heavy missions to high orbits with the most sensitive military and intelligence satellites.
- Job 1 runs from 2025 to 2034, with a five-year base period plus a five-year option. Bids will be solicited annually throughout the contract period, so there will be opportunities to “start” new businesses. These launches can be performed from non-traditional spaceports.
- Lane 2 requires certified national security launch vehicles flying from the eastern and western ranges. The contract period runs from 2025 to 2029. As in NSSL Phase 2, two winners will be selected, with the top scorer getting 60% of the missions.
- Based on market research and discussions with launch providers, Pentecost said, there could be at least four new competitors in Phase 3: Rocket Lab, ABL Space, Relativity Space and Blue Origin. These companies would compete in the more “risk tolerant” runway 1, although Blue Origin could have a shot at runway 2 if New Glenn completes three flights and becomes certified.
- Incumbents ULA and SpaceX are eligible to compete in both jobs.
Commercial versus military requirements
Launch companies will be busy deploying commercial mega-constellations for years to come, but the Space Force is not worried about a predicted shortage of supply, Pentecost said.
Much of the available near-term launch offering has been gobbled up by Amazon’s space internet Projet Kuiper, which is procuring 83 launches on ULA’s Vulcan Centaur, Blue Origin’s New Glenn and Arianespace’s Ariane 6.
While NSSL launch providers are contractually obligated to prioritize national security missions, the Space Force is trying to be flexible, Pentecost said.
“We have a really good relationship with our launch service providers,” he said. “They know that we actually have priority. And we may bump into a commercial cargo. But we don’t want to do that because we know that we benefit from their commercial activities. And so we are working with the industry and with NASA to make sure no one is affected.”
“We’ve never really had a problem arranging our schedule and the commercial schedule,” he said. There are plans to increase launch capacity at Cape Canaveral on the east coast and at Vandenberg Space Force Base on the west coast, which will help accelerate the cadence.
Taking risks with new providers
Course 1 will essentially be a broad and open competition. To qualify, a company doesn’t have to be fully certified as an NSSL provider, but must have a vehicle that has already flown into orbit, said Colonel Chad Melone, senior equipment leader for mission solutions for NASA’s space acquisition delta. the Space Force.
“That’s to make sure we don’t award contracts to paper rockets,” he said.
For example, companies moving from small to medium launch vehicles are talking about launching tens of metric tons and could presumably compete to put a small satellite aircraft into low Earth orbit for the Space Development Agency.
When bids come in for orbit 1, the NSSL program will work with SDA or other customers launching small satellites to low Earth orbit and assessing the risk of flying on a newly developed vehicle.
“SDA is probably a good example because they have a scattered constellation,” and the agency plans to launch dozens of satellites each year, Melone said.
Commercially distributed constellations are now driving launch demand, Melone said. “We have spoken very extensively with the companies and the investors and what we have heard is that several companies are chasing the commercial demand to deploy entire aircraft of those scattered constellations.”
The government doesn’t know when these companies will be ready and has yet to learn the details of their launch systems, so the Lane 1 contract allows for “staged mission assurance,” Melone said, and their risk profile will be based on the maturity of their technology and other factors.
“Lane 1 really comes from the need of warfighters as the architecture transitions from a few high-value assets to more dispersed constellations,” he said. “We think Lane 1 provides resilience through system diversity.”
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