WASHINGTON – The U.S. Air Force awarded Orbital ATK a $29.2 million fixed-price contract to launch a Minotaur 1 rocket on behalf of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) within the next 24 months,  the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center announced Dec. 8

“Continued reliability of space vehicle delivery methods and affordable access to space for the National Reconnaissance Office is an essential forefront for space superiority, Air Force Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, leader of the Los Angeles-based Space and Missile Systems Center, said in a press release announce Orbital ATK’s award.

The contract is Orbital ATK’s first award under a contracting vehicle the Air Force established several years ago to broaden its pool of launch service providers qualified to launch small- and medium-sized satellites for the U.S. national security community. In addition to Orbital ATK, the Air Force also picked SpaceX and Lockheed Martin for the  indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracting vehicle.

After tapping SpaceX in 2012 for a pair of launches worth a combined $262 million, the Air Force had made no additional awards under its Orbital-Suborbital Program (OSP)-3 until picking Orbital ATK  this week for the NRO launch.

The Air Force did not say where or when the launch, designated NRO-111, would occur. The Minotaur 1, a solid-fueled rocket assembled from decommissioned Peacekeeper missile stages, has launched from Alaska’s Kodiak Island, California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base and Virginia’s Wallops Island. Its most recent launch was in November 2013 when it lifted off from Wallops carrying the Defense Department’s Operationally Responsive Space-3, STPSat-2 and more than two dozen cubesats.

Greaves said in his Dec. 8 statement that the OSP-3 program “holds great potential…to provide assured access for future DoD missions.”

SpaceX has conducted just one of the two missions it was awarded under OSP-3 in 2012. It launched NOAA’s DSCOVR satellite in February 2015 aboard a Falcon 9 from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The second OSP-3 award was for the launch of the DoD’s Space Test Program-2 bundle of experimental payloads aboard a Falcon Heavy, whose debut has slipped into 2017.

Lockheed Martin, whose Athena 1c and Athena 2c rockets are eligible to haul 181- to 1,810-kilogram payloads to orbit for the Air Force under the OSP-3 program, has yet to be assigned a mission. Orbital ATK’s Minotaur 1 and Minotaur-4 rockets are both eligible for additional launches in the same payload class.

OSP-3 originally qualified four rockets to launch payloads weighing up 1,810 to 9,072 kilograms: Orbital ATK’s Minotaur 6 and Antares, and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

The Air Force said last year it intended to extend the ordering period for OSP-3 launches to 2019 and possibly add two more providers to the pool in 2016.

Phillip Swarts is the military space reporter for SpaceNews. He previously covered space and advanced technology for Air Force Times, the Justice Department for The Washington Times, and investigative journalism for the Washington Guardian;...