A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket carrying the third Mobile User Objective System (MUOS-3) satellite for the U.S. Navy stands poised for the 2015 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Photo credit: ULA

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center announced Oct. 1 it has awarded a $98.5 million contract to United Launch Alliance to complete three Atlas 5 missions scheduled to launch in 2020.

The sole-source contract, which comes a day after Air Force awarded ULA its final contract for five Delta 4 Heavy missions, will allow the Air Force to launch the Advanced Extremely High Frequency-6, Air Force Space Command-7, and NROL-101 missions in the year ahead on previously ordered Atlas 5 rockets.

The so-called completion contract essentially pays  ULA to finish and launch three Atlas 5 rockets procured under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Phase 1 Block Buy contract that ended Sept. 30.

As part of the Phase 1 contract, the Air Force paid ULA for launch support costs under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) Launch Capability (ELC) arrangement. The ELC started in 2013 and supported both Delta 4 and Atlas 5 launches. ELC was sized to support up to eight national security space launches per year and maintain four launch pads at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The Phase 1 ELC was a cost-reimbursable contract. The Air Force said 44 missions were launched using the Phase 1 ELC.

The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act directed the Air Force to end the ELC contract in 2019 and phase out use of the Russian RD-180 engine that powers Atlas 5.

The sole-source contract announced Oct. 1 covers costs that used to be funded under the ELC contract. Because the launches slipped beyond the Phase 1 period of performance, the Air Force had to award a separate contract to cover those costs.

The $98.5 million contract runs through December 2020 and covers infrastructure and support for the AEHF-6, AFSPC-7, and NROL-101 missions. Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Space and Missile Systems Center Launch Enterprise, told reporters Sept. 30 that the Atlas 5 completion contract “ensures that each of these three missions has production and launch operations support from the end of the Phase 1 ELC contract to its respective launch date.”

Bongiovi said these missions were awarded to ULA without seeking competing bids from SpaceX. “When we awarded them, in terms of lift capacity and capability range it was assessed there was no competition available,” Bongiovi said.

ULA was awarded the AFSPC-7 mission in 2013. The AEHF-6 and NROL-101 missions — which will use the more powerful Atlas 5  551 configuration with five side-mounted solid rocket boosters — were awarded in 2017.

The Air Force paid $146.5 million for NROL-101’s rocket but has declined to disclose what it paid for the Atlas 5 vehicles that will launch AEHF-6 and AFSPC-7, saying the pricing is proprietary to ULA. A spokeswoman for ULA said she could not provide the individual contract amounts for those two missions. According to Air Force budget documents for 2017, the per-unit cost of EELV launch vehicles ranged from $117 million to about $159 million depending on the configuration.

The launch of AEHF-6, the sixth spacecraft in a constellation of cross-linked satellites that provide secure communications for the U.S. military, is slated to lift off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in March, according to spaceflightnow.com.

The AFSPC-7 mission, which will launch the Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane on its next round of on-orbit experiments, had been slated for December but is now targeted to launch from Cape Canaveral between in the April-to-June timeframe.

NROL-101, a classified mission for the intelligence community, has no public launch date besides sometime in 2020.

A ULA spokesperson said in a statement that the contract awarded Oct. 1 for the remaining Phase 1 missions “includes a well-defined scope to ensure the Air Force and the NRO have the necessary capability to launch the remaining missions on schedule.”

While the Atlas 5 completion contract closes out the EELV Phase 1 Block Buy contracts, there are still six additional Atlas 5 missions that ULA was awarded under a follow-on procurement, called EELV Phase 1A, that was created to allow SpaceX to compete for Air Force launch contracts.

The six remaining Atlas 5 missions awarded under Phase 1A are: STP-3, AFSPC-12, AFSPC-8, Silent Barker, SBIRS GEO 5 and SBIRS GEO 6.

Combined, these nine launches are likely the final Atlas 5 missions the Air Force will fly before transitioning to the vehicles it selects under the ongoing National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement. The Air Force in 2020 plans to select two companies to split 60/40 all national security launch missions from 2022 to 2026.

The competition drew bids from SpaceX, Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance.

ULA bid a new rocket, the Vulcan Centaur, that it is developing as a lower cost replacement for Atlas 5 and Delta 4.

ULA will continue to produce the Atlas 5 for NASA’s commercial crew program to send astronauts to the International Space Station. The Atlas 5 is the launch vehicle for Boeing’s Starliner capsule. The first orbital flight test of the Starliner without crew on board is planned for October. SpaceX also is under contract to transport astronauts to the ISS aboard its Crew Dragon capsule.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...