Updated Jan. 26 with additional information provided by the Space Systems Command
WASHINGTON — Blue Origin, the aerospace company founded by Jeff Bezos, has secured a contract with the U.S. Space Force for integration studies related to its New Glenn launch vehicle. The new agreement marks a significant step in Blue Origin’s potential participation in the National Security Space Launch Phase 3 program, a multi-billion dollar procurement of launch services for national security satellites.
The Space Force awarded Blue Origin nearly $18 million for “National Security Space Launch Phase 3 Lane 2 early integration studies to assess launch vehicle trajectory and mission design, coupled launch loads, and integrated thermal environments to inform compatibility between launch vehicles and space vehicles for missions planned in fiscal years 2025 and 2026.”
The NSSL Phase 3 procurement is divided into two lanes: Lane 1 caters to lower-risk missions to lower orbits, while Lane 2 focuses on demanding missions to higher orbits, requiring certified launch vehicles and full mission assurance. The latter is where Blue Origin, with its New Glenn heavy-lift rocket, could aim to challenge incumbents SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.
Bids for NSSL Phase 3 were submitted in December. Launch services contracts are expected to be awarded later this year for missions to be flown starting in late 2025 through 2029 or beyond.
To win a Lane 2 contract, bidders are required to “have a credible plan to obtain certification by 1 October 2026,” the Space Force said. Of the 58 missions projected for Lane 2, seven — five GPS satellite launches to medium Earth orbit and two direct-to-geostationary orbit launches — are being set aside for a third provider.
Studies to be completed in 18 months
The Space Force awarded Blue Origin an integration study contract for $935,000 on Dec. 18 and announced a modification on Jan. 23 for an additional $17 million. The modification is for studies to be completed by September 2025.
The government will specifically assess the capabilities and readiness of New Glenn to meet the requirements of the seven missions that the Space Force is looking to set aside for a third provider in Lane 2. This includes evaluating ground system compatibility, payload interfaces and mission timelines. While not a guarantee that New Glenn will be certified on time to compete in NSSL Phase 3, this is a positive development for Blue Origin, demonstrating the Space Force’s interest in New Glenn’s capabilities.
“The government will specifically assess the capabilities and readiness of New Glenn to meet the requirements of the seven missions that the Space Force is looking to set aside for a third provider in Lane 2…The seven payloads that would be set aside for New Glenn need to be customized to launch on that vehicle, and would have to be modified if New Glenn is not ready and payloads have to be reassigned to SpaceX or ULA.”
Phase 3 an open competition
A spokesman for the Space Systems Command said in a statement to SpaceNews that the award of these early integration study contracts does not mean the government has set aside particular missions for any specific provider.
For Phase 3 Lane 2, early integration studies are required as a “risk-reduction activity that informs the government on the compatibility between the launch vehicle and the space vehicle,” the spokesman said. These studies are “vital for identifying the space vehicle’s mission unique requirements and assessing the launch vehicle’s ability to meet space vehicle interfaces.”
Based to the schedule laid out for NSSL missions, the integration studies must be started approximately 36 months prior to launch, according to SSC. “This enables the incorporation of the studies’ results into the mission assignment process that occurs at 24 months prior to launch. The mission assignment process will assign each launch mission to the most suitable launch vehicle.”
Since Phase 3 Lane 2 is projected to award contracts around the first quarter of fiscal year 2025, early integration studies for the missions awarded under Lane 2 must be awarded around the first quarter of fiscal year 2024, prior to the Phase 3 Lane 2 award decisions.
A contract exists with each potential Phase 3 Lane 2 bidder to “reduce any barrier to competition and ensue missions in the first order year of Phase 3 are assigned to the most suitable launch vehicle,” the spokesman said. “This approach ensures that all potential Phase 3 Lane 2 offerors can fairly compete for missions under Phase 3.”
Impact on payload development
The Space Force in contract documents noted that it needs to start these early integration studies as soon as possible due to the potential impact on payload development. The seven payloads that would be set aside for New Glenn need to be customized to launch on that vehicle, and would have to be modified if New Glenn is not ready and payloads have to be reassigned to SpaceX or ULA.
Two of the seven payloads — USSF-234 and NGP-1 — are expected to be awarded in fiscal years 2025 and 2026, so the early integration studies need to be completed sooner rather than later to “prevent a delay in the development of those space vehicles,” said the contract documents. Another mission, USSF-149 “requires an additional study but may be performed concurrently with the early integration studies.”
New Glenn, still under development, is a large reusable rocket with characteristics that align with the demands of Lane 2 missions. However, the path to becoming a certified NSSL provider is challenging, requiring at least two successful orbital missions.
Blue Origin has said New Glenn’s inaugural flight is projected to happen this year. The company last week announced that it has mated the two stages of the rocket for the first time at its assembly facility at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.