Space industry awaits Air Force decisions on future launch services

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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — A long-awaited solicitation for industry bids on future space launch services will be out “soon,” said Air Force procurement chief Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch.

Much is at stake for the space industry in how the Air Force proceeds with a “launch services agreement” that has been in the works for months. Bidders already have commented on an earlier draft request for proposals and are now awaiting the final RFP.

“We want to get the real RFP out to industry,” Bunch told reporters Tuesday at the Air Force Association’s Air Space Cyber conference.

“We need to do more dialogue with the Hill,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch said. “I would hope we get that done within the next month.”  Credit: U.S. Air Force/Wayne A. Clark
“We need to do more dialogue with the Hill,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch said. “I would hope we get that done within the next month.” Credit: U.S. Air Force/Wayne A. Clark

Officials have said the plan is to award up to three contracts to develop prototypes of next-generation launch vehicles. The Air Force insists it needs at least two different vehicles to assure access to space.

Bunch said it has not yet been decided whether two or three vehicles will be selected.

The Air Force has come under huge political pressure to strike a favorable deal with suppliers at a time when commercial providers like SpaceX are shaking up the market and dramatically lowering launch costs.

“We have had a lot of dialogue with industry,” Bunch said. “There are still some final things we need to do. We hope to get the RFP out soon.”

With space launch in the spotlight on Capitol Hill, the Air Force also wants to make sure lawmakers are on board with the new contracting strategy. “We need to do more dialogue with the Hill,” Bunch said. “I would hope we get that done within the next month.”

One sticking point in the debate has been Congress’ insistence that the Air Force’s top supplier United Launch Alliance stop buying Russian RD-180 engines for its Atlas 5 rocket. ULA is in the process of developing and testing domestically produced engines for an Atlas 5 follow-on dubbed Vulcan but may need to continue using RD-180s for a few more years.

Bunch insisted there are no plans to ask Congress for approval to buy more Russian engines beyond the 18 that were already agreed to. “We are still marching to the limits that we were given by the Hill,” said Bunch.

Bunch would not discuss ULA’s progress in selecting a new engine, but said the priority for the Air Force is to ensure it can put military satellites into orbit. “We need assured access to space,” he said. “Part of the launch services agreement strategy is having domestically produced engines capable of all national security space missions.”

The upcoming launch services competition will feature a mix of military-focused and commercial companies. Challenging ULA will be Orbital ATK, which is developing a “next generation launch” vehicle, and SpaceX.

Air Force space officials touted SpaceX during a panel discussion at the conference. They praised SpaceX for having disrupted the market and forcing everyone to do business differently, in a more commercial fashion.

Also adding pressure on the Air Force to move forward is the military’s increased focus on space as a future battlefront. Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, commander of the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, said space warriors are busier than they have been in decades. “This fiscal year we have launched 21 space missions,” he said. “That is one-fourth of all space missions in the world,” he noted.

“We have launched more than Russia and more than China.”