Blue Origin joins SpaceX and ULA in new round of military launch contracts

Enlarge / Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket on the launch pad for testing earlier this year.

After years of lobbying, protests and bidding, Jeff Bezos’ space company is now a military launch contractor.

The US Space Force announced Thursday that Blue Origin will compete with United Launch Alliance and SpaceX for at least 30 military launch contracts over the next five years. These launch contracts have a combined value of up to $5.6 billion.

This is the first of two major contract decisions the Space Force will make this year as the military seeks to foster greater competition among its roster of launch suppliers and reduce its reliance on just one or two companies.

For more than a decade after its formation from the merger of the Boeing and Lockheed Martin rocket programs, ULA was the only company certified to launch the most critical military satellites. This changed in 2018, when SpaceX began launching national security satellites for the military. In 2020, despite Blue Origin’s protests seeking eligibility, the Pentagon selected ULA and SpaceX to continue sharing launch duties.

The National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program is in charge of selecting contractors to launch military surveillance, navigation and communications satellites into orbit.

Over the next five years, the Space Force wants to leverage new launch capabilities from emerging space companies. This procurement approach for this new round of contracts, known as NSSL Phase 3, is different from the way the military previously purchased launch services. Instead of lumping all national security launches into one monolithic contract, the Space Force is dividing them into two classifications: Track 1 and Track 2.

The Space Force contract announced Thursday was for Lane 1, which is for less demanding missions in low Earth orbit. These missions include smaller technology demonstrations, experiments and launches of the military’s new constellation of missile tracking and data relay satellites, an effort that will eventually include hundreds or thousands of spacecraft managed by the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency.

This fall, the Space Force will award up to three contracts for Lane 2, which covers the government’s most sensitive national security satellites, which require “complex security and integration requirements.” They are usually large, heavy spacecraft that weigh many tons and sometimes need to orbit thousands of kilometers from Earth. The Space Force will require Track 2 contractors to go through a more extensive certification process than that required in Track 1.

“Today marks the beginning of this innovative dual-track approach to the acquisition of launch services, whereby Track 1 serves our more risk-accepting commercial missions and Track 2 provides our traditional, comprehensive mission assurance.” for the most stressful heavy load throws. of our most risk-averse missions,” said Frank Calvelli, assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration.

Meet the criteria

The Space Force received seven bids for Lane 1, but only three companies met the criteria to join the military’s list of launch suppliers. The basic requirement to win a Lane 1 contract was for a company to demonstrate that its rocket can deliver at least 15,000 pounds of payload mass into low-Earth orbit, either in a single flight or in a series of flights within a 90 day period.

Bidders also had to justify their plan to launch the rocket they proposed to use for Lane 1 missions by December 15 of this year. A Space Systems Command spokesperson said SpaceX proposed using its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, and ULA offered its Vulcan rocket. Those launchers are already flying. Blue Origin proposed its heavy-lift New Glenn rocket, whose maiden test flight is scheduled for no earlier than September.

“As we anticipated, the pool of awardees is small this year because many companies are still maturing their launch capabilities,” said Brig. Gen. Kristin Panzenhagen, program executive director of the Space Force’s Space Assured Access Division. “Our strategy took this into account by enabling opportunities each year, and we expect increased competition and diversity as new vendors and systems complete development.”

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Enlarge / A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Trevor Mahlmann/Ars Technica

The Space Force plans to open the first access opportunity to Lane 1 later this year. Companies with medium-lift rockets in earlier stages of development, such as Rocket Lab, Relativity Space, Firefly Aerospace and Stoke Space, will have the opportunity to join ULA, SpaceX and Blue Origin in the Lane 1 group at that time. According to Calvelli, the structure of the NSSL Phase 3 contracts allows the Pentagon to take advantage of emerging launch capabilities as soon as they become available.

In a statement, Panzenhagen said having additional launch providers will increase the Space Force’s “resilience” at a time of growing competition between the United States, Russia and China in orbit. “Launching more risk-tolerant satellites on potentially less mature launch systems using independent, customized government mission assurance could deliver substantial operational responsiveness, innovation and savings,” Panzenhagen said.

In theory, more competition will also lead to lower launch prices for the Space Force. The SpaceX and Blue Origin rockets are partially reusable, while ULA plans to eventually recover and reuse Vulcan’s main engines.

Over the next five years, Space Systems Command will distribute fixed-price “task orders” to ULA, SpaceX and Blue Origin for groups of Lane 1 missions. The first batch of missions to be awarded in Lane 1 includes seven launches for the missile tracking megaconstellation from the Space Development Agency and a task order for the National Reconnaissance Office, the government’s spy satellite agency. However, military officials require a rocket to have completed at least one successful orbital launch to earn a task order in Lane 1, and Blue Origin’s New Glenn does not yet meet this requirement.

The Space Force will pay Blue Origin $5 million for an “initial capabilities assessment” for Lane 1. SpaceX and ULA, the military’s current launch contractors, will each receive $1.5 million for similar assessments.

ULA, SpaceX and Blue Origin are also leading contenders to win Lane 2 contracts later this year. To compete in Lane 2, a launch provider must demonstrate that it has a plan to have its rockets meet the Space Force’s strict certification requirements by Oct. 1, 2026. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are already certified , and ULA’s Vulcan is on track to achieve this milestone later this year, pending a second successful test flight in the coming months. A successful debut of New Glenn later this year would put the October 2026 deadline within Blue Origin’s reach.

Leave a Comment