COLORADO SPRINGS — Relativity Space, a company known for its 3D-printed rockets, is putting its initial bid for National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 3 contracts on hold for now. 

Relativity was initially aiming to compete for the first round of NSSL Phase 3 contracts expected to be awarded later this year. However, the California-based company’s new Terran R rocket won’t fly until 2026 at the earliest, which falls outside the timeframe for this year’s NSSL Phase 3 awards.

“We’ve been fairly transparent with our schedule over the last year and have continued to hit our milestones,” Joshua Brost, chief revenue officer at Relativity Space, told SpaceNews. “We’re very comfortable about on-ramping to NSSL in the future, likely next year as we approach that 12 months from initial launch.”

To bid for the first round of NSSL contracts, new entrant launch providers have to demonstrate their vehicle will be ready to fly 12 months from proposal submission in order to join the pool of providers, also known as “on ramping.”

Dual-lane approach

The Space Force, the branch of the military responsible for national security operations, introduced a dual-lane approach in NSSL Phase 3. Lane 1 caters to missions that can be performed by medium-lift launch vehicles like Terran-R and is open to a wider range of providers, including newcomers. The Space Force said it plans an annual on-ramping process, expected to continue until 2034 under Lane 1.

A new entrant, even after being on-ramped, can’t get an actual contract until after it launches its first mission. Relativity has not yet announced its first customer for the debut launch of Terran R.

Only heavy-lift rockets that can fly directly to geostationary orbit can compete for Lane 2 contracts comparable to those currently held by United Launch Alliance and SpaceX.

“We are highly motivated by the feedback we continue to get from the Space Force and from customers,” said Brost. “There’s a strong feeling that there just aren’t enough choices or enough competition, particularly in the medium and heavy launch market.”

This sentiment aligns with the Space Force’s goals for NSSL Phase 3. Officials said the dual-lane system aims to foster competition within the launch industry, potentially driving down costs and spurring innovation. By opening Lane 1 to new players, the Space Force hopes to create a more robust and diverse launch services market.

Launch pad at Cape Canaveral

In the meantime, Relativity Space is forging ahead with Terran R’s development. Construction of the launchpad at Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex-16 is underway.

Brost said the company remains confident in its 2026 launch target. He noted that Relativity is benefiting from close collaboration with the Space Force, which is providing valuable input to ensure the reusable Terran-R can meet stringent requirements.

Relativity was formed in 2015 and initially planned to fly a small rocket, called Terran 1. But the vehicle was shelved a year ago after just one flight and the company pivoted to the larger Terran R, designed to haul up to 20 metric tons to low Earth orbit. It intends to compete in the market currently dominated by the SpaceX Falcon 9. 

Rocket Lab and Firefly Aerospace also are developing medium rockets for commercial and NSSL missions.

To help accelerate the development of Terran R, Relativity leased nearly 300 acres of testing infrastructure at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The company has used other facilities at Stennis to test engines both for its original Terran 1 and Terran R. Relativity is now refurbishing the Apollo-era A-2 stand to support vertical testing of the reusable first stage of Terran R.

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...