Air Force asks SpaceX, ULA to bid on a five-launch contract

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WASHINGTON — The Air Force announced it is soliciting proposals for five upcoming launches — the largest group it has posted since certifying SpaceX to compete with United Launch Alliance for launch contracts.  

Claire Leon, director of the Launch Enterprise Directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, told reporters that grouping launches together was an effort to streamline and speed the acquisition process at a time when the national security sector is demanding ever-increasing access to space.

“By doing five at once, it makes our acquisition more efficient and it allows the contractors to put in one proposal,” she said.

The Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) Launch Service contracts included in the request for proposal (RFP) are Air Force Space Command Satellite 8 and Satellite 12, and a three GPS 3 launches.

Interested companies have until Aug. 14 to submit proposals, but must bid on all five launches. A waiver to not bid on a particular launch will only be granted if there are technical concerns, Leon said.

AFSPC-8 will carry two Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program satellites, GSSAP-5 and 6. The GSSAP program is an Air Force effort to deploy satellites that can keep an eye on the geostationary orbital belt 36,000 kilometers above the equator, as well as other orbits, to track satellite movements and improve attribution should any problems arise. The launch is scheduled for spring 2020.

AFSPC-12 will carry two space vehicles: the Wide Field of View Testbed and a propulsive EELV Secondary Payload Adapter, the Air Force said. Both are aiming for geosynchronous orbit, and are scheduled to lift off in early 2020.

The service did not say when the three Lockheed Martin-built GPS 3 satellite launches are scheduled for. Delays in the program have repeatedly pushed back the schedule, and the first satellite in the program has yet to launch.

Two more bidding opportunities are expected before the end of 2017. Leon said the service would put out an RFP for AFSPC-52 in August, and another batch of five launches grouped together sometime before the end of the year.

That next group of five launches would include three missions for the National Reconnaissance Office — NROL-85, -87, and -107 — one satellite for the Space Based Infrared Systems missile-warning constellation, and AFSPC-44. Leon said it’s possible that another GPS 3 launch might be added to the group as well.

 

SpaceX

Although United Launch Alliance has long been the military’s sole source for national security launches, the desire to develop competition in the field has many looking to Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

SpaceX, however, would need a heavy-lift vehicle to successfully win some of the upcoming launch bids, Leon said. The company’s Falcon Heavy is not yet certified for military launches.

“It would need to be certified by the time that we awarded the contract,” Leon said. “We want to see one flight, and before we would actually fly a mission we would want to see three flights.”

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said late last month that Falcon Heavy is on track to debut later this year and should fly a total of three times within the next 18 months.

For the first part of the Pentagon’s competitive space launch contracts — dubbed Phase 1A — the Air Force has decided not to allow previously flown boosters for any missions.

Leon said that approving reusable-rocket technology would require an entirely new certification process, at a time when the military wants to focus certifying things like the Falcon Heavy or new entrants like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

However, the service is open to eventually accepting reusable technology as part of a company’s bid.

“We are trying to reduce the cost of launch, and if this is the offering from commercial providers we need to get on board,” Leon said. “It’s just going to take us a little bit of time, but it is something we are starting to study first. Longer term my hope is any company that’s offering flight proven hardware demonstrates or develops a track record that helps us build confidence.”