GPS 3 Launch Contract Gives SpaceX First Shot at National Security Market


WASHINGTON — Newcomer SpaceX and incumbent United Launch Alliance are expected to square off for the first time for the right to launch a GPS 3 satellite in an acquisition that is being driven in part by the U.S. Air Force’s desire to reintroduce competition in the national security launch market.

The Air Force released the final request for proposals for the launch Sept. 30, with proposals due no later than Nov. 16, the service said in a press release. The winner will be awarded a firm-fixed price contract for a launch that is expected to take place in 2018, the Air Force said.

“The Air Force’s acquisition strategy for this solicitation achieves a balance between mission success, meeting operational needs, lowering launch costs, and reintroducing competition for National Security Space missions,” the service said.

ULA, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, has had a monopoly on the U.S. national security launch market since its establishment in 2006. However, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 was certified by the Air Force in May to launch military satellites, thereby giving ULA its first taste of competition in that market.

The Falcon 9 that won certification is an older variant of the vehicle that is being phased out after the upcoming launch of a satellite for NASA. SpaceX will be introducing a new Falcon 9 variant, boasting a performance increase by one-third, later this year.

The satellite that is the subject of the competition is one of the new generation of GPS navigation, positioning and timing satellites being built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems. The Air Force typically maintains a constellation of more than 30 such satellites in medium Earth orbit, replacing older ones at a rate of a few launches each year.